Iraqi forces were still battling ISIS militants in a small area of Mosul on Monday, a day after the prime minister visited to congratulate the troops on retaking nearly all of Iraq’s second largest city.
Brig.-Gen. Haider Fadhil of the Iraqi special forces said that even after the militants are defeated in the last pocket under their control, Iraqi forces will need to carry out clearing operations to root out sleeper cells and defuse booby traps.
‘If they don’t carry weapons, they are civilians.’
— Lt.-Gen. Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi
Iraqi commanders believe hundreds of ISIS fighters remain inside the group’s last enclave and are using their families — including women and children — as human shields in a fight to the death. Humvees could be seen racing out of the Old City on Monday, ferrying wounded soldiers to field hospitals.
“There’s no accurate estimate for the Daesh fighters and the families who are stuck there,” said Lt.-Gen. Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi, a senior special forces commander, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
He said most civilians left in the Old City are believed to be ISIS family members. “But we will not accuse them of anything,” he said. “If they don’t carry weapons, they are civilians.”
The battle for Mosul has killed thousands and displaced more than 897,000 people, and the United Nations said Monday there was no end in sight to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq despite the recent gains in Mosul.
It said thousands of Mosul residents will likely remain displaced from the city after the fight is concluded because of “extensive damage caused during the conflict.”
Airstrikes, artillery and militant bombings have destroyed thousands of buildings as well as key infrastructure in Mosul. Iraq’s Interior Ministry says more than half of all buildings in western Mosul, where the fighting was heaviest, were damaged or destroyed.
Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, fell to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014, when the group blitzed across much of northwestern Iraq. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then shocked the Middle East and Western powers by appearing at the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque in broad daylight and declaring a caliphate and himself the leader of the world’s Muslims.
A reign of terror followed, which eventually alienated even fellow Sunni Muslims who supported the group, handing an advantage to the security forces. Baghdadi has since fled the city and his exact whereabouts are unknown. Reports have said he is dead but Iraqi and Western officials have not been able to confirm this.
While defeat in Mosul will deal a heavy blow to ISIS, the group controls several cities and towns south and west of Mosul, and its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa. ISIS fighters are also expected to take to the desert or mountains of Iraq and wage an insurgency, much like al-Qaeda did following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
U.S.-backed Syrian forces, meanwhile, have encircled and pushed into Raqqa.
Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake Mosul last October, and by late January the eastern half of the city was declared liberated. The push into western Mosul began the following month. In June, Iraqi forces started the weeks long push through the Old City, Mosul’s most congested district.
On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers celebrated recent gains, though Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stopped short of declaring an outright victory.
On his visit to Mosul, al-Abadi met field commanders, kissed babies and toured a reopened market. But airstrikes and sniper fire continued amid the revelry.
Over the nearly nine-month campaign, Iraqi forces have reduced the ISIS hold on Mosul to less than a square kilometer of territory.
“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.”
A few kilometres away, special forces commanders climbed over mounds of rubble on the edge of the Old City to plant an Iraqi flag on the western bank of the Tigris, marking weeks of hard-fought gains.