- - Thursday, June 29, 2017

BAGHDAD — The culmination of the long, harder-than-expected battle to drive Islamic State from Iraq is at hand.

Following weeks of steady but bloody progress, Iraqi government forces announced Thursday that they were close to recapturing the landmark Nuri mosque in Mosul, a hugely symbolic victory retaking the holy site where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only known public appearance in 2014 and from which he declared the establishment of a radical Islamic “caliphate.”

The Nuri mosque, parts of which are almost 1,000 years old, is mostly rubble now because the militants blew it up last week.

Government officials have declared victory prematurely in the past against the brutal jihadi group. But with Islamic State fighters clinging to a small patch of the Old City amid relentless government advances, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took to Twitter to insist that this time the end was in sight.

“We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state,” Mr. al-Abadi said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “The liberation of Mosul proves that.”

With U.S.-backed forces also cutting off key escape routes for Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, the group’s last major urban stronghold across the border in Syria, U.S. and Iraqi officials are increasingly confident of a battlefield breakthrough in the coming days.

“We will not relent. Our brave forces will bring victory,” Mr. al-Abadi said.

The Joint Operations Command, where Iraq, the U.S. and other members of the coalition work, said in a statement that “Counter-Terrorism Service forces control the Nuri mosque and the Al-Hadba minaret,” but witnesses on the ground said Islamic State resistance around the site had not been completely subdued.

U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters at the Pentagon that “the Old City still remains a difficult, dense, suffocating fight — tight alleyways with booby traps, civilians and [Islamic State] fighters around every corner.”

U.S. officials estimate that 300 Islamic State fighters are holed up in an area smaller than a square mile — along with some 50,000 Mosul residents trapped behind the lines.

Still, Col. Dillon said he expected victory to be imminent, “in days rather than weeks.”

A special forces soldier said Islamic State fighters remained about 100 feet away from the mosque for most of the day and Iraqi troops faced fierce resistance in pockets of Mosul, in specific neighborhoods and in retaking the mosque — especially from snipers.

“It’s difficult right now,” the soldier said. Islamic State “is still holding some neighborhoods. We’re not done.”

Damaged and destroyed houses dot the Old City neighborhoods retaken by Iraqi forces, and the stench of rotting bodies rises from beneath collapsed buildings, according to an AP dispatch.

“There are hundreds of bodies under the rubble,” said special forces Maj. Dhia Thamir. “But they are all [Islamic State].”

Looking ahead

That hasn’t stopped some from planning for the post-battle phase.

Abu Ahmed, 29, an archaeologist from Mosul who fled to Irbil a few months ago, said the world would see the true depth of the Islamic State’s barbarism when he and others begin cataloging the damage to sections of the Old City.

“The situation is tragic,” said Mr. Ahmed. “The buildings are so old. Some date back to the Ottoman era. Any explosion might destroy many of them altogether.”

Not only must buildings be rebuilt, but Mosul residents also face the burden of comforting the wounded and reconstructing shattered lives. Clashes have displaced more than 850,000 people, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“Losing my wife was so hard,” said Abu Haneen, whose wife died in a U.S.-led coalition airstrike on the city this month. “It was better if I died instead of her. I do not know how can I bring up my five children without her.”

Ali Al-Baroodi, a lecturer at Mosul University’s Translation Department, said he welcomed Iraqi government troops and militias, but he knew Islamic State fighters were still prowling the streets, sometimes dressed as civilians.

“The problem is that districts are not safeguarded enough immediately after their liberation,” said Mr. Al-Baroodi. “The army is doing a great job rescuing the victims, but it is not their mission. Yesterday, an engineer was shot and two workers died when they went to work repairing some roads with the municipality. An ISIS sniper targeted them.”

Special forces Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi acknowledged that civilians have been killed by airstrikes and artillery in the recent fighting. “Of course there is collateral damage; it is always this way in war,” he said. “The houses are very old, so any bombardment causes them to collapse completely.”

Across the border in Syria, The Associated Press, citing U.S. officials and a Syria war monitor, reported that U.S.-backed fighters have seized the last road into Raqqa and are moving eastward along the river south of the city, almost completing the siege on the militants’ de-facto capital.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition told AP that the Syrian Democratic Forces are now in control of all high-speed routes into Raqqa from the south. The Kurdish-led fighters had been advancing from the city’s east after they seized a major stronghold in May, and from the west and north.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a unit of the SDF has seized villages across the river, moving through the Kasret al-Faraj area. The Observatory described it as a strategic advance that completes the siege around Raqqa.

“IS has no other choice now but to surrender or fight to the end,” said the Observatory’s director, Rami Abdulrahman.

Gilgamesh Nabeel reported from Istanbul for this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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