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U.S. Promises To Help Rebuild Syrian City Of Raqqa

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. Now we're going to get a rare look into the Syrian city of Raqqa. This was the de facto capital of ISIS, but Syrian rebels, backed by a U.S.-led air campaign, forced ISIS out last year. NPR's Michele Kelemen went into Raqqa with the Trump administration's top aid official.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In the dimly lit basement of what was once a soccer stadium in Raqqa, Centcom Commander Joseph Votel, and Mark Green, who runs the U.S. Agency for International Development, are walking through the rubble and listening to stories about what went on here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They used to use a lot of these for jail cells.

KELEMEN: Green says he got a sense of what he calls the depths of their evil.

MARK GREEN: When you walked to that soccer stadium, went down below and you looked at some of those rooms that were used as torture chambers, it's a reminder of what people have been through.

KELEMEN: But Green saw something else on his first tour of Raqqa.

GREEN: There's obviously all signs of gloom and terrible things that have happened, but I'm an optimist, and I look and see signs of hopefulness in kids playing, in people trying to restore some normalcy to their lives.

KELEMEN: There are blocks and blocks of rubble in central Raqqa, but there's also the occasional store and many children showing the victory sign as Americans pass by in a convoy. USAID and the State Department have a small team working in northern Syria to help restore water and irrigation systems and oversee contractors clearing thousands of IEDs in mines left behind by ISIS. General Votel says it's all part of the U.S. military strategy.

JOSEPH VOTEL: Our coalition campaign is not over there. We're moving into what I frankly regard as the more challenging, the more difficult part of the campaign, and that is how we consolidate the gains and how we get people back into their homes.

KELEMEN: Officials won't call it nation building and insist they're not involved in an open-ended mission. They say this is just about stabilizing the area and helping local partners on the ground like those who fought ISIS on America's behalf.

VOTEL: The manpower is here in Raqqa. We need to harness the international community to get the big resources in here.

KELEMEN: But unlike in Iraq, where Votel also visited this week and where 18 countries are helping the U.S. train Iraqi forces, the U.S. is doing this on its own so far in northern Syria, where it doesn't even have permission from the government. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently laid out a case for a long-term U.S. presence to keep Iran in check and encourage a peace process that would ultimately bring about a government that the U.S. can work with. The delegation that went to Raqqa had more immediate concerns on their minds.

YASMIN WAHID: (Foreign language spoken).

KELEMEN: This woman, Yasmin Wahid (ph), says her family was being held by ISIS as human shields before they managed to escape Raqqa last year. Now living at a camp a couple of hours to the north, she told Green that she'd like to return home but there's still no water or electricity.

GREEN: I've been to other camps in other parts of the world where people have lost hope, where people make it clear they're not going home. These people want to go home. So there's an immediate job to be done. And if we can build the world's support for it, if we can build the resources that are necessary, I think we can solidify the extraordinary progress that we've seen from our men and women in uniform.

KELEMEN: But USAID has been reluctant to lure people back to Raqqa until experts can get a handle on the land mines and booby traps still being found in houses and buildings throughout the city. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Raqqa, Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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