Liberation of city of Mosul hailed as huge blow against Islamic State
Defeat in key bastion diminishes jihadist group which has now lost much of the territory it captured in northwestern Iraq
Beirut — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Mosul to declare it liberated from Islamic State (IS), three years after the city’s abrupt fall to the jihadists alerted the world to the group’s growing strength, territorial ambitions and barbarity.
Abadi congratulated the Iraqi people and fighters on a "great victory" after the last pockets under IS control were retaken, according to a tweet from his media office.
The campaign to free Mosul from IS entered its final phase in the narrow streets of the Old City in mid-June, eight months after thousands of Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters backed by US-led airstrikes began their offensive. Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition, has described it as the toughest urban warfare he has seen in the 34 years of his service.
Retaking Mosul marks a major blow against IS, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first speech as self-proclaimed caliph from one of the city’s mosques in 2014.
The group is now diminished, having lost much of its territory spanning northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Its ability to attract foreign fighters is also dented, although it continues to inspire militants abroad who have staged terrorist attacks from London to Tehran.
For Abadi, whose government has struggled to overcome political and sectarian challenges and rebuild an economy stripped of oil revenue, it is a major success.
There have been scenes of jubilation as Iraqi forces have slowly taken back control of Mosul, removing the black banners of the jihadist group.
The UN says as many as 150,000 residents were trapped in the Old City when the battle there began, with illness and disease spreading as clean drinking water, food and medicine ran low.
IS used those who stayed as human shields, according to the UN. Over the past few months, it has massacred hundreds who attempted to flee the city in an effort to deter others from doing the same.
In one of its final acts of defiance, IS blew up the Great Mosque of al-Nuri on June 22.
The monument, whose iconic leaning minaret is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar note, once towered above the historic city centre. It was there that Baghdadi made his first speech as self-proclaimed caliph and called on the world’s Muslims to obey him, dressed in a black robe and turban, to signify his claim of descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
As IS sought to entrench its strict interpretation of Islam, it meted out brutal punishment to those who opposed it. Children were trained to be fighters.
It also destroyed ancient sites it said were heresies to its ideological tenets. Apart from the Great Mosque, the city lost the Tomb of Jonah and its museum was ransacked.
Mosul was IS’s most important bastion along with Raqqa, its self-styled capital, in Syria. It featured in its propaganda videos, many filmed in the style of television news reports.
British hostage John Cantlie appeared in at least five that sought to portray the city as an example of utopian governance with a bustling economy.
In reality, residents described shortages and struggles to cope with rising prices for basic foods and fuel.
An estimated 2.4-million people lived in Mosul before the war, making it northern Iraq’s largest city. Hundreds of thousands of residents fled after it was captured and as operations began to retake it in October 2016, with many seeking refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and camps nearby.
IS took advantage of the poor military performance of Iraqi troops — and portrayed itself as a champion of Sunni Arabs who felt alienated by a Shiite-led government — in its lightning assault across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.
It then headed south towards Baghdad, triggering fears of the country’s breakup as ethnic and sectarian tensions surged.
Iraqi forces and militias sup-ported by Iran had pushed IS into reverse with months-long battles in key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, before moving on to Mosul.
The air power, artillery and intelligence provided by a US-led coalition helped secure the city’s eastern neighbourhoods in January. Residents returned to their homes; shopkeepers reopened stores, free to sell whatever they choose; and children went back to school.
Battlefield progress slowed as fighting moved deeper into the Old City, as Iraqi forces entered dense neighbourhoods and faced persistent counter-attacks. With the offensive from the south stalling, Iraqi troops repositioned to begin a new offensive from the north in May.
Mosul was IS’s last main urban centre in Iraq, but it still controls several areas in the west and northeast, including Hawija near Kirkuk.
As IS’s territory collapses, it has shifted its emphasis on state building and governance to survival. Analysts say battlefield losses do not spell the end of its ideology. A hymn, or nasheed, released in July insists the jihadist group will not vanish despite the setbacks: "Oh people of error, it [the state] is remaining, not vanishing, Anchored like the mountains."
The message was "clearly addressing the losses faced by the IS amid the coalition campaign against it", said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an analyst at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, who translated the nasheed.
"Military defeat and the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq will be insufficient to sway the views of IS supporters," IHS Markit, a London-based information and analytics group, said in a report on June 29.
"The group’s video productions have declined in frequency, suggesting that it is less capable of disseminating its messages. However, it has already prepared its followers for the loss of territory," it said.