Iraqi troops are clearing up a key neighbourhood in Mosul after making significant gains against Islamic State militants in the city and the prime minister declared an end to the extremist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi and Lieutenant Colonel Salam Hussein said their forces were continuing to clear territory in the Old City after retaking the symbolic al-Nuri Mosque on Thursday. Lt Gen. al-Saadi said his forces were continuing to push forward from the Old City and had reached within 700 metres of the Tigris River, which roughly divides Mosul into an eastern and western half.
The mosque and its 12th century minaret were blown up by IS last week – an indication, the Iraqi government said, of the militants’ imminent loss of Mosul. On Thursday, prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced that full liberation of the city was near and Iraq’s “brave forces will bring victory”.
The operation to retake Mosul, closely backed by the US-led coalition, was launched in October with the Iraqi government initially pledging the city would be liberated in 2016. Instead, it has been a long and deadly fight. Eight months on, IS holds less than two square kilometres of the city. Clashes have displaced more than 850,000 people, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
The Old City, with its tightly packed houses and narrow alleys, has seen some of the most difficult urban combat. Damaged and destroyed houses dot the areas retaken by Iraqi forces and the stench of rotting bodies rises from beneath collapsed buildings. While IS has not confirmed any Mosul losses, its media arm, the Aamaq news agency, carried reports of fierce fighting on Friday on the city’s outskirts and in the neighbourhoods of Bab Jadid, al-Mashahda and Bab al-Beidh, claiming IS fighters had killed more than 50 Iraqi soldiers.
Although IS claims are often exaggerated, the fact that the reports made no mention of the Old City was significant and could be interpreted as indirect confirmation of the losses there. About 300 IS fighters are thought to be holed up inside the last Mosul districts, along with 50,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.
The al-Nuri Mosque was a symbolic win. The site is where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in July 2014, declaring the self-styled Islamic caliphate encompassing territories then held by IS in Syria and Iraq. But IS destroyed the mosque and its famed leaning minaret last week, Iraqi and coalition officials said. IS blamed a US air strike for the blasts, a claim rejected by a spokesman for the US-led coalition who said allied planes “did not conduct strikes in that area at that time”.
Al-Baghdadi’s fate remains unknown. Earlier this month, Moscow announced he may have been killed in a Russian air strike in late May on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, which is being encircled by an array of anti-IS forces. Russian officials stressed that the information was still “being verified through various channels”.