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The Pentagon has announced plans to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Mosul from the self-named Islamic State. Up to 25,000 Iraqi troops could move to take back the city in April or May. Kurdish fighters will be a key part of the operation. They are close U.S. allies, and their forces hold turf just north of Mosul. NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke with the Kurds in the field about their view of the future assault.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: On top of a mountain overlooking Mosul, a Kurdish commander named Asmat Rajab watches ISIS flags fly over his hometown. For him, an assault to liberate Mosul is personal.
ASMAT RAJAB: (Through interpreter) If we do it now it's better than tomorrow. If we do it tomorrow it's better than a week from now. The sooner the better.
SHAPIRO: Some believe that's true, that ISIS will dig in deeper the more time it has. Others argue that ISIS will alienate the local population the longer it stays in power. For a wider view of the strategy, we went way up the Kurdish chain of command.
Very good to meet you, Your Excellency.
Masrour Barzani leads Kurdistan's security and intelligence services. He told me his fighters have been prepared for a Mosul assault for a long time.
MASROUR BARZANI: We basically are waiting for the rest of the Iraqi troops, the Iraqi army, to be ready to come to Mosul.
SHAPIRO: Kurds have already driven ISIS out of parts of northern Iraq. But Mosul is a majority Sunni Arab city. Kurdish forces could be seen as occupiers. So everyone agrees the Iraqi security forces, which have Shiite and Sunni Arabs, must take the lead - as soon they're ready.
BARZANI: I wish I could tell you that they are ready, but they are not.
SHAPIRO: The U.S. military is trying hard to make the Iraqi army ready. Barzani says they have been trying hard for the last decade.
BARZANI: But let's not forget, you know, for 10 years the Iraqi army was trained and supported. And unfortunately they did not last fighting ISIS, especially in Mosul. Five Iraqi military divisions and one federal police division were completely destroyed or abandoned their posts.
SHAPIRO: That was last summer. These days, the Iraqi army's not doing much better.
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SHAPIRO: This video from an ISIS YouTube channel shows the group attacking a city called al-Baghdadi last week. There are close-ups on the dead bodies of Iraqi soldiers. So I asked Kurdish Security Chief Masrour Barzani...
I hear everyone talking about the Iraqi army must be ready. The Iraqi army is not ready. If the Iraqi army doesn't get ready, is there a plan B?
BARZANI: Kurds cannot go to the areas where they are not Kurdistan. So if the Iraqi army is not ready, if there are no other ground forces ready to defeat ISIS, that is something that the decision-makers in the United States, members of the coalition have to make. Do they have the time and the luxury to live with ISIS in an area where they can still flourish and produce terrorism?
SHAPIRO: The U.S. insists the Iraqi army will be ready. But everyone acknowledges this fight must be quick and it must succeed on the first try. Otherwise, Mosul's population of 2 million people could flood north into this part of Iraq that is already overwhelmed with people who've been driven from their homes. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Erbil, northern Iraq.
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