Iraqi leader de­clares end to IS caliphate

Lodi News-Sentinel - - World - By Susannah Ge­orge

MO­SUL, Iraq — With an­tiIs­lamic State group forces on the of­fen­sive in both the Iraqi city of Mo­sul and the Syr­ian city of Raqqa, Iraq’s prime min­is­ter on Thurs­day de­clared an end to the ex­trem­ist group’s self-pro­claimed caliphate.

But even as Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi made the bold as­ser­tion, deadly fight­ing con­tin­ued in Mo­sul — fill­ing field hos­pi­tals and forc­ing hun­dreds to flee.

“We are see­ing the end of the fake Daesh state. The lib­er­a­tion of Mo­sul proves that,” alAbadi said on Twit­ter, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for IS. “We will not re­lent. Our brave forces will bring vic­tory.”

Across the bor­der in in Raqqa, coali­tion of­fi­cials pre­dicted a long, bloody bat­tle ahead for the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, whose fight­ers suc­ceeded in com­pletely en­cir­cling the mil­i­tants’ de-facto cap­i­tal Thurs­day. U.S.-led coali­tion of­fi­cials es­ti­mated that as many as 2,500 IS fight­ers re­mained in the city.

Be­gin­ning at dawn, Iraqi forces be­gan a push deeper into Mo­sul’s Old City, where IS fight­ers were mak­ing their last stand. The Iraqi troops moved slowly along foot paths strewn with rub­ble, twisted metal and downed power lines. Many front-line po­si­tions were only reach­able by climb­ing in and out of homes, across roof tops and through holes blasted into con­crete walls.

By early af­ter­noon they had reached al-Nuri Mosque, at once a hugely sym­bolic win and a ru­ined prize. The site is where IS leader Abu Bakr al­Bagh­dadi made his only pub­lic ap­pear­ance in July 2014, declar­ing the self-styled Is­lamic “caliphate” en­com­pass­ing ter- ri­to­ries then-held by the ex­trem­ists in Syria and Iraq.

But IS de­stroyed the mosque and its iconic lean­ing minaret last week, Iraqi and coali­tion of­fi­cials said. The Is­lamic State group blamed a U.S. airstrike for the blasts, a claim re­jected by a spokesman for the U.S.-led coali­tion who said coali­tion planes “did not con­duct strikes in that area at that time.”

The fight for the Old City has seen some of the most dif­fi­cult ur­ban com­bat yet for Iraqi forces in the cam­paign against IS. Eight months into the Mo­sul of­fen­sive, IS now holds less than two square kilo­me­ters (0.8 square miles) of the city, but the ad­vances have come at con­sid­er­able cost.

Dam­aged and de­stroyed houses dot the Old City neigh­bor­hoods re­taken by Iraqi forces and the stench of rot­ting bod­ies rises from be­neath col­lapsed build­ings.

“There are hun­dreds of bod­ies un­der the rub­ble,” said spe­cial forces Maj. Dhia Thamir. “But they are all Daesh.”

Spe­cial forces Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi ac­knowl­edged that civil­ians have been killed by airstrikes and ar­tillery in the re­cent fight­ing. “Of course there is col­lat­eral dam­age, it is al­ways this way in war,” he said. “The houses are very old, so any bom­bard­ment causes them to col­lapse com­pletely.”

U.S.-led coali­tion spokesman Col. Ryan Dil­lon told re­porters at the Pen­tagon that “the Old City still re­mains a dif­fi­cult, dense, suf­fo­cat­ing fight — tight al­ley ways with booby traps, civil­ians, and (IS) fight­ers around ev­ery cor­ner.”

Still, he said he ex­pected vic­tory to be “im­mi­nent,” pre­dict­ing it would come “in days rather than weeks.”

Even af­ter Mo­sul is re­taken, how­ever, IS still con­trols sig­nif­i­cant pock­ets of ter­ri­tory in Iraq that Iraqi forces say will re­quire many more months of fight­ing to lib­er­ate.

Some 300 IS fight­ers re­main holed up in­side the last Mo­sul dis­tricts the mil­i­tants hold, along with an es­ti­mated 50,000 civil­ians, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

The civil­ians who man­aged to es­cape Thurs­day fled on foot in waves. Sol­diers shouted at men to lift their shirts to show they were not wear­ing ex­plo­sives and rum­maged through the few pos­ses­sions peo­ple car­ried with them: iden­tify pa­pers, fam­ily pho­tos, baby for­mula, di­a­pers and cloth­ing.

NOE FALK NIELSEN/NURPHOTO

The main Mosque in Mo­sul with the lean­ing minaret of Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mo­sul, where the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, de­clared the Caliphate in 2014, in Mo­sul, Iraq, on May 2017.

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