MOSUL, Iraq: US-backed Iraqi forces attacked Daesh’s remaining redoubt in Mosul’s Old City on Friday, a day after hailing the end of the insurgents’ self-declared caliphate with the capture of a historic mosque that symbolized their power.
Dozens of civilians, mostly women and children, fled across the frontline toward the troops as bullets whizzed through the air. They were thirsty and tired, and some had been wounded.
Commanders of Iraq’s Counter-terrorism Service (CTS) cautioned that with the mostly non-Iraqi Daesh militants dug in among thousands of civilians and likely to fight to the death, the battle ahead remained challenging.
CTS Maj. Gen. Maan Al-Saadi told Reuters it could take at least four to five days of fighting to capture the last handful of neighborhoods along the banks of the Tigris River, defended by about 200 militants.
“The advance continues to Midan neighborhood,” he said. “Controlling it means we have reached the Tigris River.”
The Daesh militants denied the setbacks. The group, whose leader declared a caliphate over parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago, still occupies an area the size of Belgium across the two neighboring countries, according to one estimate.
The fall of Mosul would mark the effective end of the Iraqi half of the caliphate, although the group still controls territory west and south of the city, ruling over tens of thousands of people.
The insurgent position in Mosul is several hundred meters wide and thousands of civilians are trapped there in harrowing conditions, with little food, water, medicine and no access to health services, according to those who managed to flee.
Those who escaped on Friday streamed through alleyways near Al-Nuri Mosque, which Daesh fighters blew up a week ago.
They scrambled over mounds of rubble in the street, carrying small children and helping the elderly across.
A Reuters correspondent saw smoke billowing over the riverside districts amid artillery blasts and burst of gunfire. Western troops from the US-led coalition were helping with aerial surveillance and mortar fire, he said.
The suffering of tens of thousands whose lives have been wrecked for having lost relatives, their homes or their businesses dampened feelings of victory.
“I hear victory speeches on the radio but I cannot help feeling sad when you see people without homes and others fleeing with their children under the blazing sun,” said Mahmoud, a taxi driver in the eastern side of Mosul which was taken back from the militants in the first 100 days of the campaign.
The symbolic victory of the Iraqi forces came after more than eight months of grinding urban warfare which has displaced 900,000 people, about half the city’s pre-war population, and killed thousands of civilians, according to aid organizations.
Daesh’s weekly publication Al-Nabaa, denying they were losing the battle for Mosul, said the Iraqi army had virtually collapsed and suffered 300 killed and wounded.
“The epic battle of Mosul is one of the most important battles of Islam and its lessons will be applied in other confrontations, God willing,” read a headline.
Speaking about the announcement of Mosul’s recapture, coalition spokesman US Army Col. Ryan Dillon said: “I can’t put a timeline on that for them, but I see it closer to days than a week or weeks.”
He praised the Iraqi forces’s “grit and determination” and said coalition support would help bring “an imminent liberation.”
He added: “Tight alleyways with booby traps, civilians and Daesh fighters around every corner make the Iraqi security force’s advance extremely challenging.”
The end of the battle will usher in a whole new set of challenges for Iraq, including retribution against residents of the city suspected of having Daesh ties — an issue highlighted by the UN rights office on Friday.
“We are seeing an alarming rise in threats, specifically of forced evictions, against those suspected of being Daesh members or whose relatives are alleged to be involved with Daesh,” spokesman Rupert Colville said.