STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have a glimpse now of American forces fighting on the border between Iraq and Syria. Iraqis have mostly driven ISIS out of their country and back into Syria. Now Iraqi forces have stepped across the border into Syria, we're told, and U.S. troops are supporting them. NPR's Jane Arraf visited them along that border. Hi there, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi there.
INSKEEP: So what is the problem that Americans and their allies are addressing?
ARRAF: So basically they drove ISIS out of almost every city they've been in. ISIS had a third of Iraqi territory - of Iraq as territory. But now they're across the border, and there's a fear that they could come back in. So at the base we went to, which is called a fire support base because U.S. soldiers, who are protected by Marines, are launching artillery - and those are those big guns with more than a 10-mile range - they're shooting at ISIS targets just across the border.
And that's where we spoke to Sergeant Jason Powell from Louisville, Ky. He's 31, and he's been out there almost a month. He was standing next to a rack of artillery shells, showing me how he's given a target, and then he directs his crew to load these huge rounds and fire them.
JASON POWELL: It all starts with the forward observer. They're going to observe something that needs to be - maybe we're calling for fire to destroy the enemy or just terrain denial - a number of different reasons.
ARRAF: And terrain denial means preventing ISIS from holding ground or coming back across that border.
INSKEEP: And I'm just trying to figure this out, Jane. When you say there's a forward observer, I guess that means - right? - there is an Iraqi or an American or a drone or something that is operating across that border on the Syrian side - right? - to - where they can see the target.
ARRAF: Yeah, that's a great question. So traditionally, in the past, they have been U.S. Special Forces, and they perhaps still are. There are also Iraqi spotters. And they do use drones and other surveillance mechanisms. But he's talking about an actual person.
INSKEEP: OK. So there is some kind of cross-border operation going on with U.S. artillery support. What is life like on that base where the artillery's being fired?
ARRAF: It's really austere. So you fly in by helicopter. And this is about a mile from the Syrian border in the desert. There are no buildings there, just tents. It's about 100 degrees, and there's no air conditioning. There's sand everywhere and scorpions and huge, biting spiders. But despite that, one of the soldiers I talked to - Private Clayton Mogensen - told me that they occasionally have fun. They've taken the handles from pickaxes to use as baseball bats.
That must be, like, a real skill - actually playing baseball with a pickaxe handle.
CLAYTON MOGENSEN: Oh, yeah. I mean, you got to have a good eye to hit it, but, you know, we're not...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter).
MOGENSEN: We're not throwing too quick of heaters, so...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).
MOGENSEN: No, it boosts morale when you walk around and you see a baseball laying there, so that's what we've been doing if we're not training.
INSKEEP: OK, so they're either trying to be accurate with artillery or with pickaxes. So the Americans are there on the border - the western border. How is security like in the rest of Iraq, Jane?
ARRAF: It's a lot better than it was. So what Iraq says is ISIS has been defeated militarily. But what that means is there's still pockets of ISIS and particularly in those seams between security forces who don't always get along, either the Kurdish forces or Iraqi government forces or a variety of forces. So the best way to describe it is probably relatively secure but fragile.
INSKEEP: OK. And, of course, U.S. forces now operating in the biggest seam of all - that borderline between Iraq and Syria. Jane, thanks very much.
ARRAF: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jane Arraf.
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