U.S. Bombs Blunt Islamic State In Iraq, But Haven't Forced Retreat : Parallels After more than a month of airstrikes by the U.S., the extremist group still controls nearly a third of Iraq, including the city of Mosul. But residents there say the bombings are lifting morale.

U.S. Bombs Blunt Islamic State In Iraq, But Haven't Forced Retreat

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The U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS can only do so much.


An air campaign cannot capture territory. Strikes inside Syria and more than a month of strikes in Iraq have not reduced the land area ISIS controls.

INSKEEP: But the air campaign may have shifted the mood. Within the occupied city of Mosul, residents say the airstrikes have lifted morale. Residents also claim that a clandestine group is assassinating ISIS fighters. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from northern Iraq.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: We reach Abu Wissam by phone inside Mosul.

ABU WISSAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: It's a nickname to protect his identity in a city that is controlled and run by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. Abu Wissam's reaction to the strikes in Syria is excitement.

WISSAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: I'm hopeful, he says - hopeful that this will be a first step to end this nightmare. Abu Wissam and others we spoke to see the U.S.-led airstrikes that targeted ISIS in Syria this week as part of the same war against the extremists that took their city in June. The U.S. has conducted limited strikes in northern Iraq for some six weeks, and the French have started too. And while they've blunted the bold advances ISIS was making in the North, they have not destroyed them or really rolled them back. The extremists still control about a third of the country, including Abu Wissam's city of Mosul. This week, in the western Anbar province, ISIS fighters starved out an Iraqi army base, attacked it and killed dozens of Iraqi soldiers and kidnapped dozens more. But what the airstrikes have done is lifted the morale of those who want ISIS out. And in Mosul, that number is growing, Abu Wissam says.

WISSAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Life has stopped, he says. And ISIS is acting badly with the people. And the airstrikes seem to be scaring the extremists.

WISSAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: They don't feel safe in the city, so they're adapting, he says. They change their bases constantly. They hide in civilian homes and only come out in the streets a few hours a day. The airstrikes and the promise of more help has made people bolder inside Mosul. Atheel al-Nujaifi is the governor of the northern city of Mosul. He fled when ISIS showed up. Nujaifi says he's helped set up small, secret cells inside the city to attack ISIS. He calls them the Mosul battalions.

ATHEEL AL-NUJAIFI: Each day, they have one or two operations against ISIS in many places - not just inside Mosul, but even outside the city.

FADEL: They work undercover. Each cell doesn't know about the other, and they walk up to ISIS leaders at ISIS checkpoints, shoot them and run away. So far, Nujaifi's office says the battalions have killed more than 100 ISIS fighters.

AL-NUJAIFI: We know that this force cannot defeat ISIS from the city, or they cannot win or take the city from ISIS.

FADEL: That must come from the international coalition and Iraqi, he says. Again, Nujaifi.

AL-NUJAIFI: Now we establish sleeping cells inside the city. This is a civilian resistance. It's not armed. Those are thousands till now.

FADEL: Their job is to wait until the day a force enters Mosul to take it back. Then they will rise. Derek Harvey is the director of the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida.

DEREK HARVEY: To rebuild Iraqi security forces and identify good leaders and to build up their competencies is going to take a long time.

FADEL: Harvey says until then, a bolder airstrike campaign would be wasted, with no viable partner on the ground. But Abu Wissam, the resident of Mosul, says he and many others want more airstrikes inside his city, not just on the outskirts.

WISSAM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He says whenever he hears airstrikes, he and his friends call each other to say congratulations. And when the skies are silent, they worry they've been forgotten. He knows the risks, that he and other civilians could die in the strikes - ISIS seek refuge in their neighborhoods. But that's a risk he's willing to take, he says, for this nightmare to end. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Erbil.

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