Iraq’s prime minister showed up Sunday in the city of Mosul to declare victory in the nine-month battle for control of the Islamic State’s former capital in Iraq, signaling the near-end of the most grueling campaign against the extremist group to date and dealing a near-fatal blow to the survival of its self-declared caliphate.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has arrived in Mosul to personally congratulate the Iraqi security forces “on achieving victory,” a statement from his office said.
It remained unclear, however, whether a last pocket of territory, thought to span no more than a few hundred square yards, had been fully cleared of Islamic State fighters. There were sounds of gunfire from the area in Mosul’s Old City shortly before he arrived, and an airstrike hit the area earlier in the afternoon.
Thousands of civilians had poured out of the city’s final pockets of Islamic State territory in recent weeks, many of them in tears as they stumbled to safety. Stuck between the Islamic State and the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes propelling the campaign to save them, many said they had spent weeks with barely any food or water. Without medical care, the wounded had died in or under their homes.
Mosul was the largest city to fall to Islamic State control. It was from the city’s medieval mosque that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the birth of a caliphate spanning swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Three years later, that building lies in ruins, after the Islamist militants blew it up as Iraqi forces moved in. Mosul’s recapture comes as the Islamic State has lost more than 60 percent of its territory and 80 percent of its revenue, according to analysis by IHS Markit.
“The loss of Mosul means ISIS is no longer the same, for better or worse. It’s no longer the quasi-state that it projected itself to be,” said Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
The offensive has been grueling. According to aid groups, thousands of civilians have been killed. Much of the western districts have been shattered by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, as well as Islamic State car bombs and shelling.
In the final days of the battle, commanders said militants had sent suicide bombers out among fleeing civilians and used children as human shields in the winding alleyways of the Old City.
Standing in the ruins of what was once a family home, Staff Sgt. Rasoul Saeed said the fight had been “incomparable.” “It is the hardest battle we have ever fought. At the end we are bogged down in alleyways, without vehicles, alone against the enemy,” he said. “And they have got women in there, they have trapped children.”
The city, like others in Iraq, has been devastated by the military campaign to dislodge the Islamic State. The United Nations predicts that at least $1 billion will be required to rebuild Mosul’s basic infrastructure. More extensive reconstruction could cost billions more.
In the Old City, streets have been leveled. Rubble and twisted rebar are piled high through the alleyways, burying mattresses, flip-flops and other remnants of the lives Islamic State fighters built there. No one here knows how many civilians also remain under the rubble of their homes.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Louisa Loveluck, Mustafa Salim