MOSUL, IRAQ — (CNN) Iraqi forces are locked in an intense battle for the final few blocks of western Mosul still under ISIS control.
The capture of Mosul is imminent, but the battle remains “a difficult fight,” with days — rather than weeks — to go, coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said Thursday from Baghdad, confirming Iraqi forces had seized the remains of an iconic mosque and minaret.
The capture of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri — where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the ISIS caliphate in 2014 — marks a major stride in the eight-month battle to seize the city, Iraq’s largest metropolis outside Baghdad, from the terrorist group.
A CNN team was 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.
An Iraqi military spokesman told CNN that Iraqi forces secured the perimeter of the mosque, where ISIS placed landmines.
‘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,” Abadi said on Twitter, referring to ISIS by another name. “We will not relent, our brave forces will bring victory.”
ISIS remains in Mosul’s Old City and a hospital complex, said Dillon, the coalition spokesman, referring to the medical center as an “11-story killing tower for this murderous group.”
Only a “couple of hundred” ISIS fighters remained in Mosul earlier this week, the coalition said.
Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, head of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, told CNN that ISIS stragglers in Mosul will be confronted, with capture within a few days.
Once ISIS has been ousted, he said, explosives in the area must be cleared so civilians can return.
Then there is the challenge of dealing with the terror group elsewhere in Iraq. ISIS still controls cities in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Anbar provinces, including Hawija, Tal Afar, Qaim, Ana and Rawa.
Home turned into battered military position
Early Thursday, Maj. Salam Hussein was gulping Red Bulls and shouting orders to his Iraqi troops.
On this day Iraqi special forces were aiming to take the symbolic al-Nuri mosque in Mosul’s Old City from ISIS.
And while political leaders in Baghdad already were declaring victory, soldiers were still bitterly fighting for ground.
A live surveillance feed showed the destruction. Bulldozers had smashed and cleared rubble and cars to make room for Humvees. Enemy militants were weaving through a maze of buildings.
Families, wary and dazed, ran across uncertain and dangerous ground.
One woman with pins in her legs hobbled out, holding her wounded children in her arms.
Her daughter Toka spoke only one word, “hawn,” or mortar in Arabic.
“There’s been no liquids for days, we had only water. My little ones were dying of hunger,” the mother said as artillery shells whizzed by. She flinched but went on, “We didn’t see anybody. No ISIS, only the military.”
Some soldiers and their commanders gathered at a three-story home turned into a forward military position for the counterterror unit.
It was once a beautiful family villa. An upstairs bedroom had become a sniper position. A soldier rested his rifle on a baby cradle to steady his shot.
The breezy central courtyard, littered with trash and flies, was packed with soldiers on breaks, smoking and chatting.
“I took this ring off a dead jihadist. It’s a genuine stone, and it’s bullet proof,” one soldier told CNN.
Another troop member displayed an ISIS debrief manual published weeks earlier with detailed maps of Iraqi military positions.
The men appeared relaxed and calm, but it won’t be a be-all and an end-all victory for them. Iraq’s sectarian divide that has perpetuated conflict for more than a decade is sure to spur more bloodshed.
Residents still at risk
Fighting has caused significant displacement from the city, where about 100,000 civilians remain. More than 742,000 people have left Mosul and surrounding areas since the offensive began, the Iraqi government said about a month ago.
Civilians left behind ISIS lines lack access to clean water and medicine, and many have limited access to food, the United Nations has said.
Thousands of children remain trapped in western Mosul, Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Iraq, 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,” Hawkins said. “Those who try to flee risk being shot or wounded. Hundreds of civilians have already been reported killed and used as human shields.”
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,” she said.
Why Mosul is crucial
In October, Iraq’s Prime Minister announced the start of the mission to retake Mosul, an effort that relied on a diverse coalition of about 100,000 troops.
Mosul, 560 kilometers (350 miles) northwest of Baghdad, has been considered one of the main entry points for foreigners coming into Iraq.
Capturing the city in June 2014 was one of ISIS’ most strategic wins. The terror group also took control of more than 2.5 million people and subjected some to horrors such as public beheadings.
By securing the city, Iraq would be able to address the humanitarian crisis there and ease the flow of refugees into neighboring countries and beyond.
But defeating ISIS in Mosul is only half the battle; Baghdad must keep ISIS at bay, rebuild the city’s infrastructure and govern it effectively.
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