For war-weary Iraqis, victory over Isis in Mosul offers rare cause for celebration
Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has declared victory over Islamic State forces in Mosul after nearly nine months of fighting to displace the extremist group from the city where it proclaimed its “caliphate”. Abadi travelled to Mosul last Sunday to formally reclaim the city, now a shadow of the thriving hub seized by extremists in 2014. Thousands have died, nearly a million residents have fled, and swaths of the city have been reduced to ruins, including the ancient al-Nuri mosque and minaret that were one of its best known landmarks. Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” across Iraq and Syria from the mosque almost exactly three years ago. Isis forces blew it up last month in the final days of their retreat, apparently to deny Iraqi government forces the chance to hang the national flag from its minaret, a potent symbol of triumph.
Victory in Mosul is both a strategic and symbolic milestone for Iraqi fighters backed by US-led coalition forces, however, and sparked celebrations across the country, including in Baghdad where proud Iraqis took to the streets, waving the national flag in exultation. The city had been the last major urban stronghold Isis held in Iraq, and defeat there pushes it back towards its insurgent roots, leaving the militants with just a handful of towns and stretches of sparsely populated desert under their control.
Abadi “congratulates the heroic fighters and the Iraqi people on the achievement of the major victory”, his office said in a statement last Sunday while gunfire and airstrikes were still audible in Mosul. He had already declared the effective end of Islamic State’s “state of falsehood” a week before, after security forces retook the al-Nuri mosque. But last Sunday’s announcement suggested the government believed Isis had been fully ousted from the last few hundred square metres of the old city, where the militants had held off government forces.
Isis had vowed to fight to the death, but last Sunday 30 militants were killed trying to escape across the Tigris river, which cuts through the city, Iraqi military spokesman Brig Gen Yahya Rasool told state TV.
The last weeks of fighting saw intense street-to-street battles, as Iraqi forces moved into the old city, where they faced an enemy who had spent months preparing layers of barricades and booby traps, as well as a cadre of suicide attackers. The militants sent bombers to play dead in the street until government forces approached, or dispatched female suicide bombers to hide among the civilians fleeing the fighting. Even in the last days of the campaign, thousands of civilians had emerged from the city seeking help – wounded, malnourished and fearful after months effectively under siege.
The campaign began in the middle of August 2016, and some in the US administration of Barack Obama thought they might be able to claim victory before he left office in January. But Iraqi forces faced much stiffer resistance than expected. The Iraqi government does not provide casualty figures, but the US Department of Defense has said the special forces spearheading the fight lost up to 40% of fighters, Reuters reported.
However, the battle has proved an important boost to morale that was badly damaged when Mosul fell. The Iraqi army collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s 2014 advance, effectively handing Iraq’s second city to a vastly outnumbered force, along with weapons and equipment. It became a lucrative hub for the group, who raided the central bank, based much of the leadership and foreign fighters there, and used it to launch their brutal trade in Yazidi women for rape as sex slaves. Isis is likely to carry on harrying Iraqi civilians and forces from its desert bases and using underground cells in Mosul and other cities.
The Iraqi military is expected to continue to rely on US backing, with over $1.2bn in budget funds requested for 2018 to support Iraqi forces. Areas of Mosul that are still standing may be laced with bombs and need an expensive mineclearing team to make them safe.
Triumph … Iraqi forces in Mosul’s old city last Sunday