Mosul victory imminent, US says, as Iraqi forces celebrate

VIDEO: REUTERS
Destroyed buildings from clashes are seen during fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, on July 7, 2017.
Destroyed buildings from clashes are seen during fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, on July 7, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) –  Iraq will announce imminently a final victory in the nearly nine-month offensive to retake Mosul, a US general said on Saturday (July 8), as celebrations broke out among police forces in areas they control.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group seized Mosul in a lightning offensive on June 10, 2014 before sweeping across much of the country’s Sunni Arab heartland and proclaiming a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi forces launched their campaign to recapture Mosul in October, and since then ISIS has gone from holding the entire city to being trapped between security forces and the Tigris River on its western side.

Backed by a ferocious aerial bombing campaign by a US-led international coalition, the offensive has turned much of the city to rubble and forced tens of thousands of people to flee.

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Diehard militants have been putting up fierce resistance in recent days, but their efforts to keep Iraqi troops from sealing what will be ISIS' biggest defeat yet look to be coming to an end.

“An announcement is imminent,” Brigadier-General Robert Sofge told AFP by phone.

“I don’t want to speculate if it’s today or tomorrow but I think it’s going to be very soon,” he added.

The militants that remain in Mosul are fighting to the death in a tiny area of just two blocks of the Old City next to the Tigris, Sofge said, and those that remain are “desperate”.

‘FLEEING WITH SHAVEN HEADS AND BEARDS’

Some were trying to blend in with fleeing civilians by shaving their beards and changing their clothes, others were playing dead then detonating explosive vests as Iraqi forces close in.

Women have blown themselves up amid throngs of displaced civilians.

“They are doing as much damage as they can during these final moves,” Sofge said.

The battle for Mosul first began on Oct 17, 2016 and the fight grew tougher when Iraqi forces entered the warren of narrow alleys in densely populated Old City.

Slowing the advance toward the final holdouts, IS have placed booby traps and bombs in structures they occupied.

“The enemy has strung IEDs (improvised explosive devices) all over the place, in every place, in every closet, in one case under a crib,” said Sofge.

A final victory in Mosul would mark an epic milestone for the Iraqi security forces, who had crumbled in the face of an ISIS onslaught across Iraq in 2014.

‘CELEBRATION AND PRIDE’

“They deserve every bit of a celebration and pride and sense of accomplishment that a military force can feel,” Sofge said, offering a “congratulations in advance in a great battle.”

“This fight in Mosul is not like anything modern militaries have done in our life time. You have to go back to World War II to find anything that’s even close.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared on Twitter late last month that “we are seeing the end of the fake (ISIS) state”.

That claim came after Iraqi forces retook what remained of Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri and the adjacent Al-Hadba (“The Hunchback”) minaret.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph” at the mosque in his only public appearance in 2014.

But ISIS blew the two landmarks up on June 22, in what Abadi said was “an official declaration of defeat”.

In Mosul on Saturday, jubilant Iraqi interior ministry forces – whose mission has been declared over – were seen flashing V-for-victory signs and posing for selfies in front of each other holding up ISIS' notorious black flag upside down.

But others were not celebrating as the fighting continued, and distraught women and children emerged covered in dust and clutching what few belongings they could carry.

One group of militants tried to escape across the Tigris from west Mosul but were killed by the Iraqi forces, a senior commander said on Saturday.

“Some of them tried to cross to.... the far bank (of the river), but we have forces there,” said Staff Lieutenant-General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a senior commander in Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service.

The militants wanted to go back, but security forces “fired on them and killed them,” he said, without specifying how many died.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said 35 ISIS members were killed and six captured when they tried to escape “the advance of our forces” in Mosul’s Old City.

The recapture of Mosul will not however mark the end of the threat posed by ISIS, which holds territory elsewhere in Iraq and is able to carry out frequent bombings in government-held areas.