Iraqis de­clare Mo­sul vic­tory

An­nounce­ment sig­nals the near-end of nine-month bat­tle

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Louisa Loveluck, Liz Sly and Mustafa Salim

MO­SUL, IRAQ» Iraq’s prime min­is­ter en­tered the city of Mo­sul on Sun­day to de­clare vic­tory in the nine-month bat­tle for con­trol of the Is­lamic State’s for­mer strong­hold, sig­nal­ing the near-end of the most gru­el­ing cam­paign against the group to date and deal­ing a near-fa­tal blow to the sur­vival of its self-de­clared caliphate.

On a walk through the city’s eastern dis­tricts, Haider al-Abadi was thronged by men hold­ing cam­er­a­phones as mu­sic blared and oth­ers danced in the streets.

“The world did not imag­ine that Iraqis could elim­i­nate Daesh,” he said, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State. “This is all a re­sult of the sac­ri­fices of the heroic fight­ers who im­pressed the world with their courage.”

But in a sign of how tena­ciously the Is­lamic State has fought, even as Abadi was tour­ing the town the sound of airstrikes echoed through the skies and smoke rose from the last pocket of ter­ri­tory the mil­i­tants con­trol, thought to be no more than 200 yards long and 50 yards wide.

The con­fu­sion of that mo­ment came as a re­minder that even though a com­plete vic­tory now seems en­sured, it has come at a tremen­dous price. On a walk through its old­est quar­ters on Sun­day, the stench of bod­ies filled the air. Be­tween the rub­ble and re­bar were the arms of a young child, still wrapped in pale pink sleeves.

As he toured the city, Abadi met

com­man­ders in west Mo­sul who led the bat­tle but did not make a for­mal speech declar­ing the city free of mil­i­tants, although one had been ex­pected.

The bat­tle draw­ing to a close was the tough­est yet in the Is­lamic State war, one that lasted far longer than an­tic­i­pated. When the of­fen­sive was launched last Oc­to­ber, U.S. of­fi­cials were pri­vately pre­dict­ing a twom­onth fight, and ex­pressed hope that mass civil­ian dis­place­ment and wide­spread de­struc­tion could be avoided.

In­stead, the fight lasted for nine months, longer than the siege of Stalingrad and longer than the fi­nal Al­lied push into Ger­many in World War II. It has cost thou­sands of lives, up­rooted hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple and shat­tered vast stretches of the city.

And the dec­la­ra­tion of vic­tory does not end the war. The Is­lamic State can­not now roll back the ar­ray of forces ranged against it. It is on a path to de­feat in the Syr­ian city of Raqqa, the orig­i­nal cap­i­tal of the mil­i­tants’ so-called state, where an of­fen­sive launched by U.S.-backed Kur­dish and Arab forces is mak­ing progress.

But that bat­tle is still only just get­ting started.

Dur­ing the past three years since the Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi de­clared the ex­is­tence of a “caliphate” in Mo­sul, his group has been driven out of 60 per­cent of the ter­ri­tory it once con­trolled in Iraq and Syria, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. mil­i­tary.

But that still leaves it in con­trol of an ex­ten­sive chunk of land span­ning the bor­der of the two coun­tries and sev­eral other pock­ets, in­clud­ing key towns such as Haw­ija, Tal Afar and Qaim in Iraq and most of the en­tire prov­ince of Deir alZour in Syria.

As the bat­tle for Mo­sul has demon­strated, the Is­lamic State is pre­pared to fight for ev­ery inch it holds, even as the neigh­bor­hoods its cadres lived in are de­stroyed around them. U.S. of­fi­cials won’t put a time­line on how much longer the war will last, but most an­a­lysts pre­dict it will con­tinue through­out this year and per­haps much of 2018.

And even af­ter that there is the ques­tion of how and when the de­feated mil­i­tants will seek to re­group in the shad­ows of the ru­ined cities they have lost, to wage the kind of in­sur­gency that fu­eled their rise in the decade be­fore their con­quests.

“Talk about com­plete mil­i­tary de­feat is one thing. What (the Is­lamic State) de­volves into is an­other dis­cus­sion. Will they re­vert back into a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion?” asked Col. Ryan Dil­lon, the U.S. mil­i­tary spokesman in Bagh­dad.

“It’s no longer the qua­sis­tate that it pro­jected it­self to be. But ev­ery­thing achieved against the group is frag­ile. The ide­ol­ogy is still there. The ap­peal is still there, and so are the di­vi­sions that helped them take power,” said Has­san Has­san, a res­i­dent fel­low at the Tahrir In­sti­tute for Mid­dle East Pol­icy.

There is also the ques­tion of re­build­ing Mo­sul. Many of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple who fled the fight­ing to refugee camps nearby will find their homes de­stroyed. The scale of the mis­ery is vast, and far from be­ing ad­e­quately ad­dressed.

Thou­sands of civil­ians had poured out of the Is­lamic State’s shrink­ing re­doubt in re­cent weeks, many of them in tears as they stum­bled to safety. Stuck be­tween the mil­i­tants and the U.S.-led coali­tion airstrikes pro­pel­ling the cam­paign to save them, many said they had spent weeks with barely any food or water. With­out med­i­cal care, the wounded had died in or un­der their homes.

Mo­sul was the largest city to fall to Is­lamic State con­trol.

Three years af­ter the caliphate was de­clared here at the me­dieval mosque, that build­ing lies in ru­ins, af­ter the Is­lamist mil­i­tants blew it up as Iraqi forces moved in.

The United Na­tions pre­dicts that at least $1 bil­lion will be re­quired to re­build Mo­sul’s ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture. More ex­ten­sive re­con­struc­tion could cost bil­lions more.

In parts of western Mo­sul, streets have been lev­eled. Rub­ble and twisted re­bar are piled high through the al­ley­ways, bury­ing mat­tresses, flip-flops and other rem­nants of the lives Is­lamic State fight­ers built there. No one here knows how many civil­ians also re­main un­der the rub­ble of their homes.

In the fi­nal days of the bat­tle, com­man­ders said mil­i­tants had sent sui­cide bombers out among flee­ing civil­ians and used chil­dren as hu­man shields in the wind­ing al­ley­ways of the Old City.

Stand­ing amid the ru­ins, Staff Sgt. Ra­soul Saeed said the fight had been “in­com­pa­ra­ble.”

“It is the hard­est bat­tle we have ever fought. At the end we are bogged down in al­ley­ways, with­out ve­hi­cles, alone against the en­emy,” he said.

In Mo­sul’s eastern dis­tricts, the first to be re­cap­tured from Is­lamic State , a rel­a­tive lack of dam­age has seen life re­turn to some kind of nor­mal­ity.

The side­walks were bustling Sun­day night with fast food shops run­ning a roar­ing trade.

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