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When ISIS fighters attacked Mosul more than two years ago, the Iraqi soldiers guarding the city fled in disarray. Well, now Iraq's security forces are two months into a fierce battle to retake Mosul, and they're getting help from the United States military. NPR's David Welna recently traveled with outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter to a key staging area for the assault, and he filed this report.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Nearly an hour after flying out of Baghdad, a cavernous C-130 cargo plane touches down at Qayyarah West Airfield. Mosul is just 30 miles away. As recently as July, Islamic State fighters controlled this military airbase.
It's brisk and near dusk when a contingent of Pentagon officials and reporters reaches this desert outpost. We follow crushed rock trails across fine tan dust. The space, despite high concrete blast walls, gets hit by mortars, thus the hulking explosion-resistant vehicles called MaxxPros that we're herded into.
We ride to what's called the life support area. It's essentially a big tent, housing for American troops.
ASH CARTER: How you doing? Happy holidays to you. Not the most wonderful place to spend the holidays, so we wanted to make sure you knew we appreciate it.
WELNA: That's Defense Secretary Carter greeting troops with the 101st Airborne Division. Their bunks, decorated with photos and football banners, are made of foot-thick concrete slabs. Carter seems to feel an explanation's in order for why these fresh-faced soldiers are stuck here.
CARTER: You wouldn't be here if I didn't need you to be here. We need you to be here because we need to protect our people, and to do that, we need to defeat ISIL. And the Iraqis could no way ever do it by themselves. And so it's a historic necessity.
WELNA: Carter's also come to bestow medals for bravery - but not for the 500 or so Americans at this fire base. In a shed that serves as the Combined Joint Operations Command, the U.S. defense secretary pins medals on eight Iraqi soldiers, elite troops who've been doing deadly block-to-block fighting in eastern Mosul.
CARTER: These troops have shown true bravery in battle and determination. I'm confident that they will prevail.
WELNA: After the U.S. invaded Iraq nearly 14 years ago, American troops did most of the fighting. But in the Obama administration, their role has been more to train, advise and assist. Iraqis now do most of the fighting and dying. Pentagon officials say that 5,000 or so U.S. troops deployed to Iraq are mainly for training local forces or calling in airstrikes.
CAPTAIN LOU MURILLO: My name is Captain Lou Murillo.
WELNA: Murillo is one of the Marines here working with Iraqis on targeting airstrikes.
MURILLO: It's a team effort. So if they get intelligence, they'll come to us with that information, and then we'll talk about it - and then same thing. If we have intelligence, we'll talk with them and make sure that we are both included on the approval process for it. And then we will send a request up to our higher headquarters, and they process the targets from there.
WELNA: Is that Washington or Erbil or...
MURILLO: That's Baghdad.
WELNA: In Baghdad, Iraqi officials have blocked bombing such targets as the main bridge across the Tigris River in Mosul. The Iraqis want that bridge around for when Mosul's retaken. Outside the command post, Army Sergeant Brian O'Toole says he expects the battle for Mosul will end soon.
SERGEANT BRIAN O'TOOLE: It's been going pretty good. We keep on moving forward - hopefully Mosul before the beginning of the year.
WELNA: But while Secretary Carter, too, is certain Mosul will be retaken, he won't say when that will happen.
CARTER: We all want to get this done as soon as possible, but in a war, that's what you have to expect. It's going to be a tough fight.
WELNA: So tough in fact that there's concern Iraq's American-trained Golden Brigade, which has done the bulk of the block-to-block fighting in Mosul, may soon be crippled by a 50 percent casualty rate. Odds are that the battle for Mosul will continue into the impending Trump administration. For troops at the Qayyarah West air base, that could mean yet another visit and one more pep talk from the next defense secretary. David Welna, NPR News.
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