Iraqi leader vis­its Mo­sul

Al-Abadi joins rev­elry as troops face last ISIS hold­outs.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Su­san­nah Ge­orge, Si­nan Sala­hed­din and Salar Salim of The As­so­ci­ated Press; and by Tim Arango and Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times.

MO­SUL, Iraq — Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi con­grat­u­lated Iraqi troops Sun­day in the streets of Mo­sul for driv­ing Is­lamic State mil­i­tants out of most of the city.

But airstrikes and sniper fire con­tin­ued as the ex­trem­ists held small patches of ground west of the Ti­gris River.

Over the nearly ninemonth cam­paign, Iraqi forces — backed by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coali­tion — re­duced the Is­lamic State ex­trem­ist group’s hold on Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city to less than a square mile of ter­ri­tory.

Al-Abadi and Iraqi com­man­ders stopped short Sun­day of declar­ing an out­right vic­tory against the ex­trem­ists, who have oc­cu­pied Mo­sul for three years.

“We are glad to see nor­mal life re­turn for the cit­i­zens,” al-Abadi said, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from his of­fice. “This is the re­sult of the sac­ri­fices of the [coun­try’s] heroic fight­ers.”

Dressed in a black mil­i­tary uni­form, the prime min­is­ter met field com­man­ders, kissed ba­bies and toured a re­opened mar­ket in western Mo­sul. At one point, he briefly draped an Iraqi flag on his shoul­ders.

A few miles away, spe­cial forces com­man­ders climbed over mounds of rub­ble on the edge of Mo­sul’s Old City to plant an Iraqi flag on the western bank of the Ti­gris, mark­ing weeks of hard-fought gains in the heart of the con­gested dis­trict.

Sud­denly, two shots from an Is­lamic State sniper rang out, send­ing the men scram­bling for cover. The flag was re­trieved and planted far­ther up­river be­hind a wall that of­fered pro­tec­tion from a clus­ter of Is­lamic State-held build­ings nearby.

“We’ve been fight­ing this ter­ror­ist group for 3½ years now,” Lt. Gen. Ab­dul Wa­hab al-Saadi said of the spe­cial forces. “Now we are in Mo­sul, the east part was lib­er­ated, and there’s only a small part left in the west.”

Lt. Gen. Jas­sim Nizal of the army’s 9th Divi­sion said his forces achieved “vic­tory” in their sec­tor, af­ter a sim­i­lar an­nounce­ment a day ear­lier by the mil­i­ta­rized Fed­eral Po­lice.

Sol­diers atop tanks danced to pa­tri­otic mu­sic even as airstrikes sent up plumes of smoke nearby.

But al-Saadi em­pha­sized that de­spite the flag-rais­ing and the rev­elry, the op­er­a­tion to clear Mo­sul of the mil­i­tants was on­go­ing.

In­side the Old City — home to build­ings that date back cen­turies — the path carved by Iraqi forces lev­eled homes and shat­tered price­less ar­chi­tec­ture.

Less than an hour af­ter the flag-rais­ing, spe­cial forces Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Tim­imi was told that two of his men had been shot by a sniper, and one of them had died.

“He was one of our best,” al-Tim­imi said. “He just got mar­ried six months ago.”

Blocks from the army cel­e­bra­tions, a line of weary civil­ians walked out of the Old City, past the shells of de­stroyed apart­ment blocks lin­ing roads cratered by airstrikes.

“I will leave Mo­sul be­cause it has be­come a de­stroyed city,” said Aisha Ab­dul­lah, a teacher who en­dured life un­der the Is­lamic State. “In ev­ery cor­ner of it, there is mem­ory and blood.”

While the Is­lamic State, with its harsh rule, alien­ated many of the Sunni res­i­dents it sought to rep­re­sent, many res­i­dents said its ide­ol­ogy caught on among some of the pop­u­la­tion, es­pe­cially young men.

“There is no use in re­con­struct­ing the city if the peo­ple of Mo­sul don’t change,” Ab­dul­lah said.

Mar­wan Saeed, an­other Mo­sul res­i­dent, lives in the city’s east side, which was lib­er­ated in Jan­uary and where life has largely been re­stored to nor­mal. He said he feared for the fu­ture, now more than ever.

“ISIS de­stroyed the peo­ple’s men­tal­ity, and the wars de­stroyed the in­fra­struc­ture, and we paid the price,” he said, us­ing an acro­nym for the Is­lamic State. “There is no such thing as the phase af­ter ISIS. ISIS is a men­tal­ity, and this men­tal­ity will not end with guns alone.”

And there is the fear that many Is­lamic State fight­ers who were not cap­tured or killed had sim­ply put down their guns and blended in with the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, to live to fight an­other day.

“Do you know that most of the ISIS fight­ers have shaved their beards and took off their clothes, and now they are free?” said Zuhair Hazim al-Ji­bouri, a mem­ber of Mo­sul’s lo­cal coun­cil.

AP/FELIPE DANA

Iraqi sol­diers cel­e­brate Sun­day af­ter reach­ing the bank of the Ti­gris River as their fight against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants con­tin­ues in the Old City sec­tion of Mo­sul.

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