For war-weary Iraqis, vic­tory over Isis in Mo­sul of­fers rare cause for cel­e­bra­tion

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Emma Gra­ham-Har­ri­son Fadel Senna/Getty

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

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