MOSUL: After eight months of grinding urban warfare, Iraqi government troops on Thursday captured the ruined mosque at the heart of militant Islamic State group’s de facto capital Mosul, and the prime minister declared the group’s self-styled caliphate at an end.
Iraqi authorities expect the long battle for Mosul to end in coming days as remaining IS fighters are bottled up in just a handful of neighbourhoods of the Old City.
The seizure of the nearly 850-year-old Grand al-Nuri Mosque — from where the IS proclaimed the caliphate nearly three years ago to the day — is a huge symbolic victory.
“The return of al-Nuri Mosque and al-Hadba minaret to the fold of the nation marks the end of the Daesh state of falsehood,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement, referring to the group by an Arabic acronym.
The fall of Mosul would in effect mark the end of the Iraqi half of the IS caliphate, although the group still controls territory west and south of the city, ruling over hundreds of thousands of people.
Its stronghold in Syria, Raqqa, is also close to falling.
A US-backed Kurdish-led coalition besieging Raqqa on Thursday fully encircled it after closing the militants’ last way out from the south, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
These setbacks have reduced IS territory by 60 per cent from its peak two years ago and its revenue by 80 per cent, to just $16 million a month, said IHS Markit.
“Their fictitious state has fallen,” an Iraqi military spokesman, Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, told state TV.
However, it still occupies an area as big as Belgium, across Iraq and Syria, according to IHS Markit, an analytics firm.
IS fighters blew up the medieval mosque and its famed leaning minaret a week ago as US-backed Iraqi forces started a push in its direction. Their black flag had been flying from al-Hadba minaret since June 2014.
Much of the mosque and brickwork minaret was reduced to rubble, said a Reuters TV reporter who went to the site with the elite units that captured it. Only the stump of the mosque remained, and a green dome of the mosque supported by a few pillars which resisted the blast, he said.
Abadi “issued instructions to bring the battle to its conclusion,” by capturing the remaining parts of the Old City, his office said.
The cost of the fighting has been enormous. In addition to military casualties, thousands of civilians are estimated to have been killed.
Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) troops captured the al-Nuri Mosque’s ground in a “lightning operation” on Thursday, a commander of the US-trained elite units told state TV.
CTS units are now in control of the mosque area and the al-Hadba and Sirjkhana neighbourhoods and they are still advancing, a military statement said. Other government units, from the army and police, were closing in from other directions.
A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support to the Iraqi forces fighting through the Old City’s maze of narrow alleyways.
But the advance remains arduous as IS fighters are dug in the middle of civilians, using mortar fire, snipers, booby traps and suicide bombers to defend their last redoubt.
IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself ruler of all Muslims from the Grand al-Nuri Mosque’s pulpit on July 4, 2014, after the insurgents overran swathes of Iraq and Syria.
His speech from the mosque was the first time he revealed himself to the world and the footage broadcast then is to this day the only video recording of him as “caliph”.
He has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria, according to US and Iraqi military sources.
The mosque was named after Nuruddin al-Zanki, a noble who fought the early Crusaders from a fiefdom that covered territory in modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It was built in 1172-73, shortly before his death, and housed an Islamic school.
The Old City’s stone buildings date mostly from the medieval period. They include market stalls, a few mosques and churches, and small houses built and rebuilt on top of each other over the ages.
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2017