RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Iraqi leaders say the city of Mosul is no longer under ISIS control. Mosul was won back after a nine-month offensive led by fighters from the Iraqi government, Kurdish, Peshmerga and local militias. U.S. air support was key to that success. And Andrew Croft is one of the people in charge of that element of the offensive. He is a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force. And he joins us now on Skype from Baghdad. General Croft, thanks so much for being with us.
ANDREW CROFT: Thank you, Rachel, for having me.
MARTIN: It has been a few days now since Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Mosul. But there are still reports of fighting even today. Was the prime minister premature in declaring that this is all over?
CROFT: No, we are still doing what we call back-clearing operations in west Mosul, which involves clearing of individual snipers or individual ISIS fighters that may have come out of tunnels or underground buildings that they've constructed over the last three years. So there are still individual strikes going on to assist the Iraqi security forces where they are unable to either target or get to those individual fighters as they maybe reappear from an underground tunnel or something similar.
MARTIN: What's the city look like? What's left of Mosul now?
CROFT: Well, east Mosul is a - is thriving. So on the east side of the city, east of the river, that we cleared about four months ago, it looks good. There's a lot of civilians that have moved back in. West Mosul, where we just fought, you're seeing civilians come in on the outskirts of the city from, essentially, west to east towards the old Mosul. In old Mosul, itself, there's quite a bit of destruction as ISIS was concentrated in the old part of the city, which means narrow alleyways and narrow tunnel ways. So they were concentrated in that part of the city. So you'll see more destruction of buildings there just because the intensity of the fighting in the last couple months has increased right before the defeat of ISIS.
MARTIN: You mention the narrow tunnel-ways and the concentration of buildings, such close proximity. And that's what made this fighting so difficult. And thousands of civilians died. The U.N. says thousands died in the effort to take back the city. A new Amnesty International report actually accuses coalition forces of war crimes during the fighting, saying that more civilians died than needed to, to take back Mosul. What's your read on that? Is that true? Could this have - could this effort have been achieved with fewer civilian casualties?
CROFT: No, I think it's an unfair accusation. They have not coordinated with the coalition. I'll tell you that from the way we do our airstrikes, we use the most precise and discriminate weapons that we can ever use and are available in the world to avoid targeting civilians. We have direct control and conversations with the Iraqis minute by minute on exactly what's happening on the ground. And we have an unprecedented number of unmanned vehicles over the top of the fight to see exactly what's happening.
And I'll tell you, if there's ever a doubt of whether or not there's a civilian involved, we will not strike. And so this is the most precision, low-collateral level of warfare, especially in an urban environment like this, which has not been seen since World War II, that you could ever construct. And so we have done, in my view, the absolute best job we can to avoid any civilian casualties. They're are going to happen just based on the nature of the war. But I can tell you that to be effective, we've got to support the Iraqi security forces. And that's what we've done.
MARTIN: The Army does, though, have Apache helicopters, attack helicopters, which might allow closer, more finely targeting support. Why didn't you use those in this operation?
CROFT: We did use those in those - this operation up until about two weeks ago. Actually, some of our airborne bombs - the bombs we deliver from above - are actually even more accurate. So we have an array of precision weapons, both on the Air Force and the Army side, that can really, accurately target pinpoint locations. And we have things called a low-collateral bomb, which has got a very small amount of explosive in it, which enables us to target individual snipers without damaging buildings or putting civilians at risk.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this. One of the charges specific to this claim by Amnesty is that the U.S. coalition didn't do enough to provide safe passage for civilians, who were just trapped there. And often, ISIS was using them as human shields. But was there more that the U.S. and its partners could have done to allow those people to escape?
CROFT: Yes, let me tell you what it looks like on the ground. The Iraqi security forces actually do what you just said. So as they move into areas, they will clear streets to allow civilians to attempt to escape towards friendly lines and try and bring those civilians out. What ISIS has done is it held civilians against their will, obviously. And they target the civilians as the civilians try to escape.
So we've seen 50 or 100 civilians at a time gunned down in the street by ISIS as they try and escape to friendly lines. So as the Iraqi security forces push into that city and as you mentioned, very narrow alleyways, they do everything they can to try and get the civilians out, while at the same time protecting them against ISIS fire (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Just briefly, in the seconds remaining, Mosul - ISIS is out of Mosul now. Still there is Raqqa under ISIS control and the area connecting Mosul and Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Have you learned anything from Mosul that will inform those next battles?
CROFT: The battle in Mosul was, like I said, historic. Raqqa is ongoing right now. We will succeed there also in supporting the partner forces on the ground.
CROFT: And there's more to be done in places like Hawija and Tal Afar. But I can tell you that we have successfully supported the Iraqi forces up to this point.
MARTIN: General Croft, thanks for your time. Brigadier General Andrew Croft.
CROFT: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.