Lib­er­a­tion from Is­lamic State near

U.S.: Fi­nal Mosul bat­tle to last ‘days rather than weeks’

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY AMMAR AL SHAMARY AND GILGAMESH NABEEL

BAGH­DAD | The cul­mi­na­tion of the long, harder-than-ex­pected bat­tle to drive Is­lamic State from Iraq is at hand.

Fol­low­ing weeks of steady but bloody progress, Iraqi gov­ern­ment forces an­nounced Thurs­day that they were close to re­cap­tur­ing the land­mark Nuri mosque in Mosul, a hugely sym­bolic vic­tory re­tak­ing the holy site where Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi made his only known public ap­pear­ance in 2014, and from which he de­clared the es­tab­lish­ment of a rad­i­cal Is­lamic “caliphate.”

The Nuri mosque, parts of which are al­most 1,000 years old, is mostly rub­ble now be­cause the mil­i­tants blew it up last week.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have de­clared vic­tory pre­ma­turely in the past against the bru­tal ji­hadi group. But with Is­lamic State fighters cling­ing to a small patch of the Old City amid re­lent­less gov­ern­ment ad­vances, Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi took to Twit­ter to in­sist that this time the end was in sight.

“We are see­ing the end of the fake Daesh state,” Mr. al-Abadi said, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for Is­lamic State. “The lib­er­a­tion of Mosul proves that.”

With U.S.-backed forces also cut­ting off key es­cape routes for Is­lamic State fighters in Raqqa, the group’s last ma­jor ur­ban strong­hold across the border in

Syria, U.S. and Iraqi of­fi­cials are in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent of a bat­tle­field break­through in the com­ing days.

“We will not re­lent. Our brave forces will bring vic­tory,” Mr. al-Abadi said.

The Joint Op­er­a­tions Com­mand, where Iraq, the U.S. and other mem­bers of the coali­tion work, said in a state­ment that “Counter-Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice forces con­trol the Nuri mosque and the Al-Hadba minaret,” but wit­nesses on the ground said Is­lamic State re­sis­tance around the site had not been com­pletely sub­dued.

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 al­ley­ways with booby traps, civil­ians and [Is­lamic State] fighters around ev­ery cor­ner.”

U.S. of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that 300 Is­lamic State fighters are holed up in an area smaller than a square mile — along with some 50,000 Mosul res­i­dents trapped be­hind the lines.

Still, Col. Dil­lon said he ex­pected vic­tory to be im­mi­nent, “in days rather than weeks.”

A spe­cial forces soldier said Is­lamic State fighters re­mained about 100 feet away from the mosque for most of the day and Iraqi troops faced fierce re­sis­tance in pock­ets of Mosul, in spe­cific neigh­bor­hoods and in re­tak­ing the mosque — es­pe­cially from snipers.

“It’s dif­fi­cult right now,” the soldier said. Is­lamic State “is still hold­ing some neigh­bor­hoods. We’re not done.”

Dam­aged and de­stroyed houses dot the Old City neigh­bor­hoods re­taken by Iraqi forces, and the stench of rot­ting bod­ies rises from be­neath col­lapsed build­ings, ac­cord­ing to an AP dis­patch.

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

Look­ing ahead

That hasn’t stopped some from plan­ning for the post-bat­tle phase.

Abu Ahmed, 29, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist from Mosul who fled to Ir­bil a few months ago, said the world would see the true depth of the Is­lamic State’s bar­barism when he and oth­ers be­gin cat­a­loging the dam­age to sec­tions of the Old City.

“The sit­u­a­tion is tragic,” said Mr. Ahmed. “The build­ings are so old. Some date back to the Ot­toman era. Any ex­plo­sion might de­stroy many of them al­to­gether.”

Not only must build­ings be re­built, but Mosul res­i­dents also face the bur­den of com­fort­ing the wounded and re­con­struct­ing shat­tered lives. Clashes have dis­placed more than 850,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion.

“Los­ing my wife was so hard,” said Abu Ha­neen, whose wife died in a U.S.led coali­tion airstrike on the city this month. “It was bet­ter if I died in­stead of her. I do not know how can I bring up my five chil­dren with­out her.”

Ali Al-Ba­roodi, a lec­turer at Mosul Univer­sity’s Trans­la­tion Depart­ment, said he wel­comed Iraqi gov­ern­ment troops and mili­tias, but he knew Is­lamic State fighters were still prowl­ing the streets, some­times dressed as civil­ians.

“The prob­lem is that dis­tricts are not safe­guarded enough im­me­di­ately af­ter their lib­er­a­tion,” said Mr. Al-Ba­roodi. “The army is do­ing a great job res­cu­ing the vic­tims, but it is not their mis­sion. Yes­ter­day, an en­gi­neer was shot and two work­ers died when they went to work re­pair­ing some roads with the mu­nic­i­pal­ity. An ISIS sniper tar­geted them.”

Spe­cial forces Maj. Gen. Sami alAridi 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.”

Across the border in Syria, The Associated Press, cit­ing U.S. of­fi­cials and a Syria war mon­i­tor, re­ported that U.S.backed fighters have seized the last road into Raqqa and are mov­ing east­ward along the river south of the city, al­most com­plet­ing the siege on the mil­i­tants’ de-facto cap­i­tal.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coali­tion told AP that the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces are now in con­trol of all high-speed routes into Raqqa from the south. The Kur­dish-led fighters had been ad­vanc­ing from the city’s east af­ter they seized a ma­jor strong­hold in May, and from the west and north.

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said a unit of the SDF has seized vil­lages across the river, mov­ing through the Kas­ret al-Faraj area. The Ob­ser­va­tory de­scribed it as a strate­gic ad­vance that com­pletes the siege around Raqqa.

“IS has no other choice now but to sur­ren­der or fight to the end,” said the Ob­ser­va­tory’s di­rec­tor, Rami Ab­dul­rah­man.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

REM­NANTS: A bomb ex­ploded be­hind the al-Nuri mosque com­plex, as seen through a hole in the wall of a house, as Iraqi spe­cial forces moved to­ward Is­lamic State mil­i­tant po­si­tions in the Old City of Mosul on Thurs­day.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Iraqi civil­ians fled as Iraqi spe­cial forces moved to­ward Is­lamic State mil­i­tant po­si­tions in the Old City of Mosul on Thurs­day. Many oth­ers are trapped be­hind en­emy lines.

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