HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Iraqi army troops continue to close in taking back control of Mosul from ISIS militants who captured it three years ago. Mosul was the country’s second- largest city after Baghdad. One U.S. commander says U.S. army forces are helping the Iraqis in a, quote, very close fight in the streets of Mosul. Many of the tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting, with little food or water, are now trying to flee to safety.
“Reuters” reporter Stephen Kalin is covering the conflict, and joins me now via Skype from the Iraqi city of Irbil, about 60 miles east of Mosul.
On Thursday, the Iraqi prime minister said basically victory has been declared over the caliphate. You were just there in Mosul yesterday. What’s it look like?
STEPHEN KALIN, REPORTER, REUTERS: Fighting is ongoing in the old city of Mosul, which is a centuries-old district of the city. And this is the last area of Mosul that the Islamic State still has some presence in. It’s going to be pretty grim, really narrow alleyways. And, you know, fighting, that gets very close. Very close conduct.
SREENIVASAN: Tell me about the civilians that you saw there, the ones that were fleeing.
KALIN: Yes. We were at the site of the Grand Mosque in the heart of the old city, which is where the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi made his appearance three years ago and this is where we saw civilians streaming out. It was a few dozens that we saw, but I later heard it was actually 20,000 (ph) overall yesterday, that left the old city.
And they were coming out in very desperate states. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of residents fleeing Mosul over the past eight months. And these were by far the worse in the worst condition
SREENIVASAN: Why did they stay there as long as they did? I mean, were some being held against their will as human shields?
KALIN: The Islamic State has been using civilians as human shields this entire time for the entire battle and because they know that the Iraqi forces and especially the international coalition backing them is doing everything they can to prevent civilian casualties. So, they will often force civilians stay in lower grounds of the building, and that put a sniper on top so that sniper is in some ways protected from mortar attacks or air strikes
SREENIVASAN: Tell us a little bit about this mosque and why it’s such an important symbol there.
KALIN: The Grand Nuri Mosque is the center of the old city and has been that, which is 840 years old, which is leaning sort of like the leaning Tower of Pisa due to we think structural problems. It began leaning soon after construction. So, this is an iconic site in Mosul. It is also where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi came in July, 2014, made his only public appearance that we know of the confirmed public appearance, and proclaims himself the caliph, the leader of the Islamic State.
This is place where he came, and the Iraqi forces were hoping to get to the site take down the black ISIS flag that has been hanging up for the past three years and string up the tri-color Iraqi flag as really symbolic sign of victory. They weren’t able to that because over a week ago, the Islamic State rigged the entire complex with explosives and blew it up. It’s only part of the mosque that was still intact was the dome under which Baghdadi stood and made that message three years ago.
SREENIVASAN: The Iraqi forces that you speak to, what’s the next step? Let’s say best case scenario they retake the city. It’s in ruins right now.
KALIN: That’s right. The infrastructure in Mosul is very heavily damaged, where there is electricity and water, it’s usually provided by backup generators or water trucks … Basic infrastructure is not there.
So, the battle continues, and security and stability, maintaining that really is going to be a trick for the security as well. We’re almost a hundred percent sure of that Islamic State has left sleeper cells, that some of the fighters have blended in with the civilian population. And so, we expect that there will be some sort of return to insurgent attacks and that will be task number one for the security forces to handle.
SREENIVASAN: All right. Stephen Kalin of “Reuters” joining us via Skype from Erbil tonight — thanks so much.
KALIN: Thanks for having me.