Mosul’s liberation is “imminent,” but the battle “still remains … a difficult fight,” with days — rather than weeks — left to go, coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said Thursday from Baghdad, confirming Iraqi forces had seized the remains of an iconic mosque and minaret.
CNN’s Senior International Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh was just yards away from the mosque on the front line of the battle earlier Thursday with Iraqi units fighting ISIS. At that time, Iraqi forces had not yet captured the remains of the mosque, and a fierce battle was underway, he and his team reported.
An Iraqi military spokesman told CNN that Iraqi forces secured the perimeter of the mosque, where ISIS placed land mines.
‘We will not relent’
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed victory and vowed to hunt ISIS until every last member is killed or brought to justice.
“We are seeing the end of the fake ‘Daesh’ state, the liberation of Mosul proves that,” al-Abadi said on Twitter, referring to ISIS by another name. “We will not relent, our brave forces will bring victory.”
ISIS remains only in Mosul’s Old City and a hospital complex, Dillon said, referring to the medical center as an “11-story killing tower for this murderous group”
Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, head of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, told CNN that Iraqi forces reached a successful point in the fighting Thursday.
“This is very important for us,” he said. “Everybody is very happy.”
Shaghati said he believes ISIS stragglers in Mosul will be confronted and “everything” will be liberated in a few days.
After the city is rid of ISIS, he said, a major task will be clearing explosives in the area so civilians will be able to return.
Then there is the challenge of dealing with ISIS in other Iraqi places. ISIS still controls cities in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Anbar provinces, including Hawija, Tal Afar, Qaim, Ana and Rawa.
Residents still at risk
People lack access to clean water and medicine, and many have limited access to food, the United Nations has said, with officials expressing deep concern for the safety of civilians behind ISIS lines in western Mosul.
Thousands of children remain trapped in western Mosul, UNICEF’s representative in Iraq, Peter Hawkins, said Thursday.
“Children are facing multiple threats to their lives. Those stranded in the fighting are hiding in their basements, fearful of the next onslaught. Those who try to flee, risk being shot or wounded. Hundreds of civilians have already been reported killed and used as human shields,” he said.
Wendy Taeuber, the International Rescue Committee’s Iraq country director, said regaining the city from ISIS wouldn’t mean “an automatic end to the suffering.”
“Many difficult months lie ahead for the more than 1 million people that were forced to flee their homes, as well as those that remained in Mosul, and survived ISIS brutality and the fight to retake the city,” she said Thursday. “Beyond Mosul, at least 150,000 people, including around 75,000 children, are still living under ISIS rule,” in Hawija, Tal Afar and in western Anbar.”
Why Mosul is crucial
It beheaded people in public, threw gay men to their deaths from the top of buildings, and made prisoners out of men who did not grow beards and women who did not wear Islamic clothing such as burqas.
Key trading city
Mosul’s location is of paramount importance. It’s a key trading city not far from the borders of Syria and Turkey. Wresting Mosul away from ISIS would significantly limit the movement of fighters, weapons and supplies.
The city is also near some of Iraq’s most vital oil fields, as well an oil pipeline that services Turkey. Securing these fields could bolster Iraq’s economy and also hit ISIS’ finances hard as the militant group sells oil illegally to finance its operations.
‘Mosul is cultural capital’
Mosul has been considered ISIS’ “cultural capital” since Baghdadi’s declaration there, said Fawaz Gerges, author of “ISIS: A History.”
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh and Salma Abdelaziz reported from near the front line. Jomana Karadsheh contributed from Doha, Qatar, and Ryan Browne from Washington. Joe Sterling and Faith Karimi wrote this story from Atlanta, with contributions from Mohammed Tawfeeq.