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Kurdish Forces In Iraq Begin Offensive To Retake Sinjar From ISIS


NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is going to talk to us now about the current military operation in Sinjar. And Tom, to begin, what's the U.S. strategy in taking this area around Mt. Sinjar?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, if you look at the map, you begin to see the overall plan. Now, there's a highway - Route 47 - that stretches between two major northern cities both held by ISIS. You have Mosul in Iraq and, to the West, Raqqah in Syria. Now, Mosul is Iraq's second-largest city. It's been held by ISIS for well over a year. Raqqah to the west in Syria is really the headquarters for the Islamic State. So the hope is here to prevent ISIS from moving fighters and weapons from Syria into Iraq along the highway.

Now, to take this critical road and area, the Kurds have amassed thousands of fighters held by a small number of American advisers. And there are only hundreds of ISIS fighters, but they're well dug-in. That's what the American officials say. They've seeded the area with roadside bombs and car bombs. And U.S. officials expect a very tough fight. And to help in this effort, the U.S. is conducting dozens of airstrikes hitting everything from ISIS command posts, fighting units, even targeting some of the car bombs in this area.

CORNISH: Let's say the Kurds and their allies are successful against ISIS in taking this area - right? - especially if they cut off ISIS access to that highway. Then what? I mean, what's the next step?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. and its allied ground forces - a variety of rebel groups in Syria and Iraqi government forces and Kurds next door - they'll continue to press forward, isolating these larges cities. In the sense is Mosul in Iraq will take a lot longer and partly because the Iraqi army is not seen as aggressive like the Kurdish fighters we just heard about.

Now, one general told me that capturing Mosul could take three years. And I put that timeline this week to Major General Rich Clark. He's commander of the 82nd Airborne, and he's in Iraq taking part in this train-and-assist program. And he said, listen; I don't think the Iraqis would agree with that. But he wouldn't offer his own timeline for taking back Mosul. He would only say the Iraqis will deal with Mosul on their schedule.

CORNISH: So you're talking about Mosul in Iraq and a strategy there. But what about Syria?

BOWMAN: Well, things are moving somewhat better in Syria. The rebels are taking more ground in the northern part of the country. The U.S. is sending, also, as we've reported, up to 50 American commandos in the coming weeks to help organize Arab and Kurdish fighters there, provide weapons and ammunition. So this is all for a push toward that city of Raqqah, now the Islamic State headquarters.

And again, the same kind of story - you have a dug-in enemy, hundreds of Islamic fighters versus many thousands Arab and Kurdish fighters. And even with those lopsided numbers, U.S. officials are uncertain if that American-supported force can actually seize Raqqah. They can circle it and, over time, maybe as it withers on the vine, go in.

CORNISH: OK, so if the Pentagon says it's doubtful the rebel allies can capture Raqqah anytime soon, is it possible to send U.S. ground troops to liberate Raqqah?

BOWMAN: It's unlikely, Audie. You may see the U.S. send in more American commandos, special operations forces to assist the rebels in planning and so forth, but at this point, there's no talk of Americans actually getting into the fight.

CORNISH: Tom Bowman - he covers the Pentagon for NPR. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.