BAGHDAD • With Iraqi troops battling inside ISIS' Iraqi bastion of Mosul, the militants' leader told his followers yesterday to fight to the death, breaking a nearly year-long silence as Iraqi forces closed in on the city .
Expressing confidence in victory despite the broad alliance of Iraqi and international forces arrayed against a few thousand fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on the militants to "wreak havoc".
He also urged them to target Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslim regional powers that he said had entered the war against ISIS.
"This raging battle and total war, and the great jihad that the state of Islam is fighting today only increases our firm belief and our conviction that all this is a prelude to victory," Baghdadi said in an audio recording released online by supporters yesterday.
Iraqi regular troops and special forces, Shi'ite militias, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and other groups backed by US-led air strikes launched a campaign two weeks ago to recapture Mosul.
Winning back the country's second biggest city would mark the defeat of the Iraq wing of a cross-border caliphate, which Baghdadi declared from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque two years ago. ISIS also holds large parts of neighbouring Syria.
In his first audio message released in nearly a year, Baghdadi called on the population of Mosul's Nineveh "not to weaken" in the war against the "enemies of God", referring to the northern Iraqi province of which Mosul is the capital.
He also called on the group's suicide fighters to "turn the nights of the unbelievers into days, to wreak havoc in their land and make their blood flow as rivers".
Addressing those who might consider fleeing, he said: "Know that the value of staying on your land with honour is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame."
The exact location of Baghdadi, who is an Iraqi, is not clear.
Reports have said he may be in Mosul itself or in ISIS-held land to the west of the city, close to the border with Syria.
The authenticity of the 31-minute-long recording could not be verified immediately, but the voice and style closely resembled those of previous speeches Baghdadi has delivered.
The recording appeared to be recent as it focused on the Mosul offensive, although Baghdadi did not mention the city by name.
Mosul still has a population of 1.5 million people, more than any of the other cities captured by ISIS two years ago in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE