Iraqi leader visits Mosul
Al-Abadi joins revelry as troops face last ISIS holdouts.
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.
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.