TABQA (Syria) • The young man unburdened himself about the dark years of living under ISIS as a crowd of curious onlookers gathered in front of a weathered storefront in the town marketplace.
The militants, said the man, a 22-year-old named Abdul Qadir Khalil, killed many residents, doled out precious jobs and severely limited travel to and from the city.
"When they left, our situation was much better mentally," he said. Then, laughing about his new freedom to openly denounce the militants, he said: "If they ever come back, they will slaughter all of us."
Life is slowly returning to the streets of Tabqa, a Syrian city of about 100,000 strategically positioned just 45km west of Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
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Women are well represented on the town's new governing council, and small children greet visitors with a "V" sign for victory.
But nearly two months after ISIS was driven off by the US-led coalition fighting the militants, the city has no functioning hospitals or schools, not even the heavy equipment needed to uncover the dead.
In that respect, Tabqa stands as a laboratory for testing the Trump administration's policy of empowering commanders in Syria to make battlefield decisions to defeat the militants while relying on a small team of State Department officials and Army civil affairs units to cement the uneasy peace that follows - all without getting into the business of nation-building.
It is also a dry run for the impending capture of Raqqa, a larger, far more densely populated and better-defended city.
•As Iraqi forces mop up the last pockets of ISIS resistance in the Iraqi city of Mosul, another force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces has almost sealed off Raqqa, trying to trap as many as 2,500 hard-core militants.
About 50,000 civilians remain in Raqqa, and military officials said the militants planned to use many as human shields. Fierce resistance is expected as the militants are holed up in a cluster of tall buildings in northern Raqqa, redoubts that provide cover for snipers.
"Mosul has got some big buildings, but they are spread out over the city," said Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, the US commander of the coalition force made up of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters. "Here, there are a cluster of tall, dominant type of buildings. They are hard for any army."
But Iraqi forces are also facing increasingly difficult fighting in Mosul and a rising number of suicide bombings in the final stages of the battle for the city, senior Iraqi commanders said yesterday.
More than eight months after the start of the operation to retake the city, the militants have gone from fully controlling it to holding a limited area on its western side, but resistance is still tough.
"The fighting is becoming harder every day because of the nature of the Old City," Staff Lieutenant-General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), said of the area of narrow streets and closely spaced buildings where the end of the battle for Mosul is unfolding.
Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain, combined with a large civilian population, has made for an extremely hard fight. The same conditions that aid the militants' defences, however, also serve to shield Iraqi forces from snipers, Lt-Gen Assadi said, and "our losses are not to the level that would prevent us from advancing".
"The battle will end in five days to a week," said Staff Lieutenant-General Sami al-Aridhi, another top CTS commander.
WORLDFOCUS CHALLENGING TERRAIN
The fighting is becoming harder every day because of the nature of the Old City.
STAFF LIEUTENANT-GENERAL ABDULGHANI AL-ASSADI, a commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, on the area of narrow streets and closely spaced buildings where the end of the battle for Mosul is unfolding.
Thousands of people have fled the densely-populated city over the past 24 hours, Iraqi state TV said. But thousands more are believed to be trapped, with little food, water or medicine, and are effectively being used as human shields, said residents who managed to escape.
Months of grinding urban warfare have displaced 900,000 people, about half the city's pre-war population, and killed thousands, according to aid organisations.
But even as the battles for Raqqa and Mosul near their end, the eradication of the group is still far from over. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding near the Iraq-Syrian border, according to US and Iraqi military sources. The militants are still in control of stretches of the Iraqi border with Syria.
The group has moved its remaining command and control structures to Mayadin, in eastern Syria, US intelligence sources said, and the ISIS black flag still flies over the towns of Tal Afar to the west of Mosul, and Hawijah to the south.
The group is also still able to attract recruits, secure weapons, raise funds through theft and extortion, and send sympathisers to carry out attacks abroad. And as it gets weaker on the ground, ISIS has less to lose by unleashing attacks outside of Syria and Iraq.
NYTIMES, REUTERS, XINHUA, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE