Tuesday 16 January 2018

Isil retreats in endgame for Mosul

Counter-attack by militants stalls much-heralded liberation

Iraqi Federal Police celebrate in the Old City of Mosul Photo: REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
Iraqi Federal Police celebrate in the Old City of Mosul Photo: REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

Josie Ensor

Cornered Islamic State militants in Mosul set off suicide bombs and threw themselves into the Tigris river to escape advancing Iraqi forces yesterday, as the fight for the city entered what the army said was its "final hours".

Commanders last night said Mosul would soon be back under their full control, ending the biggest urban battle since World War II.

The jihadist group promised to fight to the death for the tiny remaining sliver of land they still held on the western side of Iraq's second city. But on the streets of the Old City, Isil's last redoubt, troops were already celebrating. Jubilant soldiers tore down the black flag which had flown over Mosul for three years, hoisting up the Iraqi flag in its place.

"We are seeing now the last metres and then final victory will come," said Iraqi state TV. "It's a matter of hours."

Dozens of insurgents were killed yesterday and others tried to escape by swimming across the Tigris, which cuts the city in half, state TV added. Most of those making a stand were foreigners, they said.

The battle for one of the group's most important territories had brought fighters from all over the world. Iraqi commanders say the militants were contesting every inch with snipers and suicide bombers, forcing security forces to fight house-to-house in the densely populated maze of narrow alleyways.

"The battle has reached the phase of chasing the insurgents in remaining blocks," the Iraqi military said. "Some members of Daesh have surrendered."

The fall of Mosul - the city whose looted central bank was used to fund Isil's vicious campaign - is a major step forward in the campaign to crush the terrorist group.

The brutal nine-month US-backed offensive to recapture Iraq's second city cost the lives of thousands of civilians and countless more Iraqi forces.

Civilians who managed to escape have been rescued hungry and severely shell-shocked from months of virtual siege. Some crawled, some hobbled out from the wreckage of their bombed-out neighbourhoods. The youngest carried the oldest and children grappled with bags containing their family's worldly belongings, struggling in the 50C heat.

To get to waiting Iraqi forces they had to walk past the 12th century Great Mosque of al-Nuri, from where Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first and only appearance declaring their caliphate.

In one of its final acts of spite, the jihadists had rigged and blown up one of Iraq's most revered sites to prevent the troops claiming it as a propaganda victory.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISOF) were tested to their limits in the battle, according to local sources.

With ISOF units depleted by casualties, Iraqi federal police and army units carried out most of the fighting in the west. Many of these units relied on coalition air strikes, which resulted in high civilian casualties.

Nearly one million people have been displaced by the fighting, creating a humanitarian catastrophe which brought the UN and charities to their knees.

"We surpassed our worst case scenario a month ago," said UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Lisa Grande.


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