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ISIS Juggles Losing Territory While Stepping Up Attacks In Iraq


By all accounts, ISIS, the Islamic State, is losing territory. But it seems to be stepping up terrorist attacks, especially in Iraq. Baghdad has been hit with a string of bombings over the last few months, including the deadliest attack since the American-led invasion in 2003. Liz Sly covers Iraq, Syria and Lebanon for The Washington Post. We reached her via Skype in Erbil, Iraq. Good morning.

LIZ SLY: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So the attacks in Baghdad, it would seem, if you're just slightly following it, that they're increasing in number. But are there more?

SLY: I think we are going to see a lot more. I mean, ISIS has made attacks of this kind, its trademark, for many, many years since the very beginning of the U.S. invasion, when it existed in a different form. And I think everybody in Baghdad is extremely worried that there are going to be a lot more attacks.

MONTAGNE: Well, does worry translate to having an effect on daily life?

SLY: I think it does. Everybody - the attack in the Karrada shopping center that killed well over 250 people, I think we're talking about a death toll of at least 280 now. You know, that was a place where everybody goes. It's not associated with any particular sect or religion. It's a popular, busy shopping area. And anybody in the city could have been there. And it really has had a dampening effect on the life there.

MONTAGNE: Well, Iraqi forces recently retook the city of Fallujah, which is just about an hour from Baghdad by road. Some of the reason for trying to retake that city was political. That is to say, people were worried about Fallujah because it, of course, was - would have seemed to have been controlled by ISIS and a source of attacks. But ISIS also controls Mosul, which is Iraq's second largest city, which is - would seem to be really key to its place in the country. So what is going on with Mosul?

SLY: Well, Mosul is a bit too far from Baghdad to be a feeder for these kind of attacks. As far as we know, the bombers actually came from Diyala, a different province. And that's an area that the government says it's driven the Islamic State out of. So it's a real reminder that you can get rid of ISIS's territorial control in these areas, but you can't stop them from creeping back as secret cells.

Meanwhile, as you said, ISIS does control the second-largest city in the country, which is Mosul in the north. That, now, is under threat from ISIS's point of view because the Iraqi army continues to make quite striking gains. I think Mosul is going to be a huge test. What we don't know at this - what we've seen is the Islamic State crumbling fairly rapidly. So I think what the question is, are they giving up some areas in order to consolidate their hold over others, or are they just crumbling on a much bigger scale?

MONTAGNE: And just in this last month, the White House announced that it's sending troops to train and assist Iraqi forces. Where does that stand?

SLY: Well, what we've got is an announcement from the past few days that they're going to send 560 extra troops to join a few hundred already operating south of Mosul. So this puts a fairly sizable force of highly specialized, highly elite troops at the heart of the Mosul offensive. I believe they - there's been some sightings already of U.S. troops on the ground in this area they took the other day. It does mean that U.S. troops are going to have a key role in the offensive for Mosul.

MONTAGNE: Liz Sly covers Iraq and Syria for The Washington Post. She joined us via Skype. Thanks very much.

SLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.