JUDY WOODRUFF: But first — the battle for Mosul.
The months-long siege by Iraqi forces, with U.S. support, has taken back about half the city. Signs of life are returning to those areas, while a new offensive is in the works to capture the rest from ISIS control.
Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and videographer Alessandro Pavone have our report.
JANE FERGUSON: Weaving through recaptured streets of Eastern Mosul, Colonel Nazar Naji takes us to the Iraqi army outposts under his command.
His men are positioned on rooftops, watching for any signs of ISIS fighters coming across the Tigris River that flows through the city. Recently, he tells me, around 50 fighters managed to cross and attack this position.
COL. NAZAR NAJI, Iraqi Army (through interpreter): They have been trying to break into the eastern side of the city, because they are now surrounded on the West side. They are besieged by the Iraqi army, militias and police.
JANE FERGUSON: Since the campaign to drive ISIS out of Mosul began nearly four months ago, Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. air support and special forces, have retaken the eastern side of the city up to the river. The western side is now completely surrounded, and ISIS is under siege.
An Iraqi military offensive to retake the rest of the city is expected to start at any time. Meanwhile, ISIS sharpshooters are still killing soldiers on the government-controlled side.
Because of ISIS snipers just across the river, we need to use these trucks as protection. These neighborhoods were recaptured by Iraq’s U.S.- trained special forces after brutal fighting. It’s now up to the regular Iraqi army to try to hold the line.
Colonel Naji hears on the radio a position nearby is coming under heavy fire, and he races there to lead his soldiers. Backup arrives with heavy weaponry.
COL. NAZAR NAJI (through interpreter): There is an attack by ISIS, and the Humvees are going to support them. There is only one injury, God willing.
JANE FERGUSON: For these men, the fear is that this attack is only to distract them while ISIS sneaks fighters across the river.
The front line is just up here. That’s where the River Tigris is, and ISIS fighters are trying to push the Iraqi army back.
Nearby, the unit responds with mortars. The one casualty, a soldier hit in the head with some shrapnel, is patched up and raced away from the front line.
But just a short distance away, a remarkable sight: Mosul’s streets are again vibrant. Life has returned to areas recaptured from ISIS. Even traffic jams are common. Just weeks ago, these streets were deadly battlegrounds. Now shops and restaurants are open for business. Open-air markets take place every day, packed with people.
Under ISIS, food shortages were severe and prices crippling. Getting food is now easier, but life is still tough.
WOMAN (through interpreter): There is no water and no electricity. We are pumping water out of old wells. And it’s not clean. People can get very sick from it.
JANE FERGUSON: The men at this tea stall are relieved that their neighborhood is safe now, but they have other worries.
MAN (through interpreter): Education is also so important. For three years, our children have not gone to school. They are behind with their studies.
JANE FERGUSON: That’s changing for many children in Eastern Mosul; 250 teenage boys attend this school. These young men would have been targeted for recruitment into the ranks of ISIS fighters. These boys are so determined to be here, they have come despite the lack of electricity and freezing temperatures in the classroom. They haven’t been in school for years, and the teachers are delighted to see them.
MAN: One hundred percent all the students in this area love — loving coming to school. They excited to study.
JANE FERGUSON: Iraqis still living on the ISIS side of the river don’t have that chance. Hundreds of thousands of people are still trapped there. Sometimes, the brave risk their lives, making a run for it.
Back at the riverside, the army unit has spotted two men trying to cross a bridge nearby. They move into position to watch for them. Captain Amr Abdul Sadda tracks them as they approach. An armored Humvee is moved in front of the bridge. In these tense moments, the soldiers have to determine whether the men approaching them are innocent civilians or suicide bombers.
This happens a lot, says the captain.
CAPT. AMR ABDUL SADDA, Iraqi Army (through interpreter): Every day, we try to secure families trying to cross towards us, and give them covering fire, because ISIS are using their snipers on them.
JANE FERGUSON: They are scared?
CAPT. AMR ABDUL SADDA (through interpreter): The people on the other side are afraid. But whenever they cross to us and we accept them, we calm them down and tell them everything is OK. We are the security forces. We are your brothers, and we are here to free you.
JANE FERGUSON: Then they appear. They have taken their clothes off to prove they are not hiding weapons or explosives. Relieved, and still frightened, they have survived a perilous escape from ISIS territory.
But they are part of a tiny trickle of people making it out. The rest remain trapped on the other side of this divided city.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jane Ferguson in Mosul, Iraq.
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