By Agence France-Presse
Iraq will announce imminently a final victory in the nearly nine-month offensive to retake Mosul from jihadists, a US general said Saturday, as celebrations broke out among police forces in the city.
The defeat would be the biggest yet for the Islamic State group three years since it seized Mosul in a lightning offensive, swept across much of the country’s Sunni Arab heartland and proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.
The Iraqi forces launched their campaign to recapture Mosul in October, and since then IS has gone from holding the entire city to being trapped between security forces and the Tigris River on its western side.
Backed by a ferocious aerial bombing campaign by a US-led international coalition, the offensive has turned much of the city to rubble and forced tens of thousands of people to flee.
Diehard jihadists have been putting up fierce resistance in recent days, but their efforts to keep the Iraqi troops at bay look to be coming to an end.
“An announcement is imminent,” Brigadier General Robert Sofge told AFP by phone.
“I don’t want to speculate if it’s today or tomorrow but I think it’s going to be very soon,” he added.
The jihadists that remain in Mosul are fighting to the death in a tiny area of just two blocks of the Old City next to the Tigris, Sofge said, and those that remain are “desperate”.
‘Fleeing with shaven beards’
The general said some jihadists were trying to blend in with fleeing civilians by shaving their beards and changing their clothes, others were playing dead then detonating explosive vests as Iraqi forces close in.
Women had blown themselves up amid throngs of displaced civilians.
“They are doing as much damage as they can during these final moves,” Sofge said.
Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, which has spearheaded the assault, said the jihadists now only held a band of territory 100-150 metres (yards) deep and 300 metres wide.
“The end of the battle is near, I would say two days, but it could go on,” said CTS commander Abdel Ghani al-Assadi.
The battle for Mosul first began on October 17, 2016 and the fight grew tougher when Iraqi forces entered the warren of narrow alleys in the densely populated Old City.
Slowing the advance toward the final holdouts, IS fighters have placed booby traps and bombs in structures they occupied.
“The enemy has strung IEDs (improvised explosive devices) all over the place, in every place, in every closet, in one case under a crib,” said Sofge.
A final victory in Mosul would mark an epic milestone for the Iraqi security forces, who had crumbled in the face of an IS onslaught across Iraq in 2014.
‘Celebration and pride’
“They deserve every bit of a celebration and pride and sense of accomplishment that a military force can feel,” Sofge said, offering a “congratulations in advance in a great battle.”
“This fight in Mosul is not like anything modern militaries have done in our life time. You have to go back to World War II to find anything that’s even close.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared on Twitter late last month that “we are seeing the end of the fake (IS) state”.
That claim came after Iraqi forces retook what remained of Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri and the adjacent Al-Hadba (“The Hunchback”) minaret.
IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph” at the mosque in his only public appearance in 2014.
But IS blew the two landmarks up on June 22, in what Abadi said was “an official declaration of defeat”.
In Mosul on Saturday, jubilant interior ministry forces — whose mission has been declared over — were seen flashing V-for-victory signs and posing for selfies in front of each other holding up IS’s notorious black flag upside down.
But others were not celebrating as the fighting continued, and distraught women and children emerged covered in dust and clutching what few belongings they could carry.
An AFP team saw more than 60 women and children in tears having lost loved ones in the crossfire, coalition bombing, jihadist shelling and sniper fire.
Hungry and haggard, they said they had spent months being held as human shields by the jihadists.
One group of jihadists tried to escape across the Tigris from west Mosul but were killed by the Iraqi forces, a senior commander said on Saturday.
“Some of them tried to cross to…. the far bank (of the river), but we have forces there,” said Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a senior commander in Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service.
The jihadists wanted to go back, but security forces “fired on them and killed them,” he said, without specifying how many died.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said 35 IS members were killed and six captured when they tried to escape “the advance of our forces” in Mosul’s Old City.
The recapture of Mosul will not however mark the end of the threat posed by IS, which holds territory elsewhere in Iraq and is able to carry out frequent bombings in government-held areas.