Battle to retake Raqqa inches toward conclusion

The U.S. has engaged its most intense bombing campaign since Vietnam in order to support militia forces in the battle for Raqqa, the Syrian city the Islamic State calls their capital. Capturing the city has been difficult because civilians inside have been trapped by ISIS and used as human shields. John Irvine of Independent Television News reports on how the fight against ISIS is changing Raqqa.

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    But first: The battle to retake Syria's northern city of Raqqa from the Islamic State is inching closer to an end.

    ISIS seized control back in 2014, declaring it the capital of their caliphate.

    John Irvine of Independent Television News has spent several days on the front line with the liberating forces, and he filed this report.


    It is the most intense American bombing campaign since Vietnam.

    Nowhere in Afghanistan or Iraq has ever been subjected to the sustained bombardment being inflicted on Raqqa, the Syrian city I.S. call their capital.

    The world's most advanced air force is doing this to help one of the worlds most poorly equipped armies, the YPG. With no tanks or heavy weapons of their own, this pro-Western militia must rely on warplanes, on AK-47s, and on a thirst for revenge.

    Getting to the city center necessitated a hectic drive through streets of rubble. Our driver, Okab, said speed was the best defense against rocket-propelled grenades. He handled his Humvee with the skill of a rally driver. Okab lost two brothers to the Islamic State, one shot, one beheaded.

    The commander we meet is nicknamed Earthquake. For three weeks, his unit has laid siege to this place, Raqqa Hospital, where I.S. have made their last stand. Capturing it is difficult, because I.S. have trapped civilians inside, so direct airstrikes are not possible.

    At this, their most forward position, the YPG are near neighbors with the enemy. We have come for a better view, but visibility is a two-way street, and we are spotted.



    Earlier, the men, all Arabs, talked about two things they share, belonging to same tribe and losing a love one to Islamic State.

    Earthquake was at university studying to be a human rights lawyer when he enlisted to restore human rights to victims of I.S. His demonstration with a meat cleaver was to explain how a friend's fingers were cut off by I.S. when they caught him smoking.

    Downstairs, Earthquake told us about the entrance to a tunnel dug by Islamic State, but now covered over with furniture and debris, because two days after he took this building, I.S. emerged from the tunnel to mount a counterattack.

    This man is wielding a sword taken from a dead I.S. fighter. The balaclava is to protect his identity, which not even his comrades know, because often he crosses the front line to pose as an Islamic State fighter and collect intelligence.

    This is a YPG spying operation inside Raqqa last year. The bulb inside a motor bike headlight has been replaced by a camera. This an I.S. checkpoint. Here, I.S. fighters leave a mosque. The streets are largely deserted, however, because people want to avoid the man questioning the motorist. They are the religious police. They spread terror inside Raqqa, while others plan to inflict terror abroad.

    For four years, Raqqa has cast a long shadow, stretching out over places like London, Manchester, Brussels and Nice. It's hard not to think of all the innocent victims of I.S., the victims of the hatred and the murderous instructions that emanated from right here.

    An hour's drive outside the city, these are the latest residents of Raqqa to escape and join many others already at the refugee camp. But at least they are safe. As winter approaches, the biggest battle they will face is with the elements.

    As for civilians deaths inside Raqqa, the coalition says it does all it can to avoid them and that, when they do happen, it's the fault of Islamic State for using human shields.

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