MOSUL (REUTERS) - Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s “state of falsehood” has come to an end, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Thursday (June 29), after Iraqi troops captured the wrecked historic mosque of Mosul in which the insurgents declared their self-styled caliphate three years ago.
“The return of al-Nuri Mosque and al-Hadba minaret to the fold of the nation marks the end of the Daesh state of falsehood,” Abadi said in a statement, referring to the ultra-hardline Sunni group by an Arabic acronym.
He said Iraqi forces would continue to hunt ISIS’s fighters “to kill them and detain them, down to the last one”.
The insurgents blew up the medieval mosque and its famed leaning minaret a week ago as US-backed Iraqi forces advanced towards it. Their black flag had been flying from al-Hadba (The Hunchback) minaret since June 2014.
The fall of Mosul would in effect mark the end of the Iraqi half of the ISIS caliphate even though the hardline group would still control territory west and south of the city. Its capital in Syria, Raqqa, is also besieged by a US-backed Kurdish-led coalition.
The cost of the battle has been enormous, however. In addition to military casualties, thousands of civilians are estimated to have been killed.
About 900,000 people, nearly half the pre-war population of the northern city, have fled the battle, mostly taking refuge in camps or with relatives and friends, according to aid groups.
Those trapped in the city suffered hunger and deprivation as well as death or injury, and many buildings have been ruined.
Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) troops captured the al-Nuri Mosque’s ground in a “lightning operation” on Thursday, a commander of the US-trained elite units told state TV.
Civilians living nearby were evacuated in the past days through corridors, he added.
CTS units are now in control of the mosque area and the al-Hadba and Sirjkhana neighbourhoods and they are still advancing, a military statement said.
A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support to the Iraqi forces fighting through the Old City’s maze of narrow alleyways. But the advance remains an arduous task as the insurgents are dug in the middle of civilians, using mortar fire, snipers, booby traps and suicide bombers to defend their last redoubt.
The military estimated up to 350 militants were still in the Old City last week but many have been killed since. They are besieged in one sq km (0.4 square mile) making up less than 40 per cent of the Old City and less than one percent of the total area of Mosul, the largest urban centre over which they held sway in both Iraq and Syria.
Those residents who have escaped the Old City say many of the civilians trapped behind ISIS lines – put last week at 50,000 by the Iraqi military – are in a desperate situation with little food, water or medicines.
Baghdadi proclaimed himself “caliph,” or ruler of all Muslims, from the Grand al-Nuri Mosque’s pulpit on July 4, 2014, after the insurgents overran vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. His speech from the mosque was the first time he revealed himself to the world and the footage broadcast then is to this day the only video recording of him as “caliph”.
He has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria, according to US and Iraqi military sources.
ISIS last week broadcast a video showing much of the mosque and brickwork minaret reduced to rubble. Only the stump of the Hunchback remained, and a dome of the mosque supported by a few pillars which resisted the blast.
The mosque was named after Nuruddin al-Zanki, a noble who fought the early Crusaders from a fiefdom that covered territory in modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It was built in 1172-73, shortly before his death, and housed an Islamic school.
The Old City’s stone buildings date mostly from the medieval period. They include market stalls, a few mosques and churches, and small houses built and rebuilt on top of each other over the ages.