Iraqi forces retake historic Mosul mosque left in rubble

(Loveday Morris, Adam Taylor, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Iraq’s prime minister declared an end to Islamic State’s hold on Iraqi territory on Thursday as government forces recaptured the site of a historic mosque in Mosul that had once been the symbolic center of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate. .

Counter-terror troops recaptured the area of ​​the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and advanced through the remaining contested streets of Mosul, the Iraqi military said in a statement. The mosque itself was reduced to little more than rubble by militants last week, but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said taking it back signaled the demise of the group’s “state” in Iraq.

The 12th-century mosque, famous for its leaning minaret, is of great significance to Islamic State as it is the location where, in July 2014, the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only known public appearance, calling Muslims around the world. world to obey him as leader of the group’s newly created caliphate. A few weeks earlier, the militants had won a resounding victory over the Iraqi armed forces in Mosul.

The militants had captured the town within days. Iraq’s battle to retake it lasted nearly nine grueling months, and the city’s military and civilians suffered heavy casualties.

Once home to more than 2 million people, the city was by far the largest ever controlled by the militants. Now only about half a square mile of narrow, winding streets in the ancient old town has yet to be reclaimed.

Iraqi commanders say they are facing stiff resistance as they fight house to house with militants who have no means of escape.

“We will continue to track Daesh until we kill and capture the last member,” Abadi said in the statement, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

But even as the battle for Mosul draws to a close, the group is far from eradicated. The black flag of the Islamic State still flies over the towns of Tal Afar in the west and Hawijah in the south. The militants also control stretches of the border with Syria, where US-backed forces are fighting to drive fighters out of Raqqa, their main stronghold there.

Mosul has witnessed two major counterattacks in recent weeks, aided by sleeper cells in areas thought to have long been cleared of militants, an indication of the challenges that remain.

Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced, with the International Rescue Committee warning that “many difficult months await” those who have been forced to flee or have lived under Islamic State rule.

“Even after the entire territory is cleared of ISIS fighters and unexploded mines, ISIS will continue to terrorize the lives of people across Iraq,” said Wendy Taeuber, national director of the group for Iraq. “The horrors inflicted by the Islamic State on the people of Mosul have left huge wounds, not only in the social fabric of the city but also in the minds of the people.”

After a dawn assault, Iraqi counter-terror troops passed the mosque but have not yet penetrated the remains of the building because it could be booby-trapped with explosives, Lt. Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Asadi said. leader of the force.

Asadi said he expected the battle to be over within a week. Counter-terrorism forces were about to launch an offensive to retake the Nouri Mosque a week ago when it was destroyed. The Iraqi military has released video footage it says shows the moment militants detonated explosive charges in the building and its minaret – nicknamed the hadba, or hunchback, for its distinctive tilt.

The Islamic State-affiliated Amaq news channel claimed that a coalition airstrike was responsible for the destruction of the mosque. Experts say footage released by the Iraqi military appears to show an explosion emanating from the building rather than an airstrike from above.

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