RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The battle to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State has been long and brutal. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have had to live under siege. The eastern part of the city was liberated from ISIS last month. Now Iraqi forces, along with help from the U.S., are in the midst of a major operation to retake the western part of Mosul which is even more densely populated. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Pentagon is finishing a review of its overall strategy to fight ISIS. Some human rights organizations are concerned it might call for expanded - for expanding U.S. rules of engagement. Sarah Margon is the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. She was recently in Mosul, and now she is in our studio.
SARAH MARGON: Hi.
MARTIN: What did you see in Mosul?
MARGON: You know, I was in east Mosul at the end of January - so a couple of weeks after it had been retaken - and it was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in terms of, more or less, post-conflict. The city had been destroyed, but people were back. They were out. The mosques had reopened the day I was there. Markets were abundant. People were trying to rebuild their lives.
MARTIN: Juxtaposed with what is now happening in the West.
MARGON: Yes, which is going to be a long, hard slog.
MARTIN: Iraqi forces are making progress, though. I mean, this has been a long, long battle. But if and when they take Mosul back, the big question remains - will the peace hold, or does ISIS kind of disperse and then regroup?
MARGON: Yeah, this is a big question. We've seen some pretty abusive things from the Iraqi security forces over the last many years. But I will say that when they took Mosul back, they were particularly well-behaved. They were professional. They were effective. And our hope is that going forward that that continues in west Mosul as well because that will create an important trust between the authorities and the people. It will help to push ISIS out and stem potential recruitment. This type of protection from security forces as well as offensive operations is really important.
MARTIN: What are you expecting out of the presidential review of the ISIS strategy?
MARGON: You know, it's really hard to tell. We expect the Pentagon to send a draft over to the White House today or tomorrow. We know that there will be a number of options, likely for more aggressive operations. There will be an inclusion of unintended consequences with each option, and it's going to be up to the president to choose. Our concern is that part of the more aggressive options will include expanded rules of engagement.
MARTIN: And explain what that means and how that might play out on the ground.
MARGON: Yeah. You know, it's not entirely clear how much more they could be expanded because they already actually were expanded under the last president. Our concern is that if they're expanded too much, civilians will be caught in harm's way. Civilians could become targets. You could lose intelligence-sharing from local communities because they're suddenly more afraid of the security forces than they have been. It could mean nonmilitary targets, like schools or homes, become military targets by the air support. So it could be a much more difficult environment for civilians to feel protected and to feel safe.
MARTIN: What is the alternative, though, if the administration sees ISIS as an existential threat? Which - they have talked about the threat in these terms. And so if President Trump is adamant about wiping ISIS off the face of the earth, then there will be costs.
MARGON: There will certainly be costs, and I think nobody expects that there won't be. But the question is - how do you move an operation forward while maintaining the trust of the local population, which are so important to intelligence-sharing to ensure that ISIS, once gone, stays gone. If they become overly aggressive, the potential for ISIS to use that as a tool for recruitment is high.
MARTIN: Do the Iraqis still see the U.S. as a valuable partner?
MARGON: It would seem they do. Based on a lot of meetings that I had both with individuals from Baghdad and in Erbil in northern Iraq, they do. But I think they're certainly concerned. One of the reasons, we understand, the west Mosul operation got underway so soon was 'cause they wanted to move before anything changed.
MARTIN: Sarah Margon is the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. She was recently in Mosul, Iraq.
Thanks so much for coming in this morning.
MARGON: Thanks for having me.
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