Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared in Mosul on Sunday to congratulate his troops for driving the Islamic State from its onetime regional capital. Fighting against the last ISIS holdouts continues in several sectors of the city but, according to the Iraqis, the Battle of Mosul has effectively concluded.
No one should underestimate the magnitude of the work that remains to be done. As the New York Times writes, Iraqi security forces must still deal with “Islamic State sleeper cells and suicide bombers,” plus “houses rigged with explosive booby traps.” Furthermore, other towns and villages in the area must still be wrested from the Islamic State, and ISIS remains capable of perpetrating mass-casualty terrorist atrocities, even in Baghdad.
Still, the Islamic State is very big on symbolism and establishing its presence through captured territory. The loss of Mosul will deal a heavy blow to its recruiting efforts, as it was the city from which the “caliphate” was declared.
In fact, ISIS took pains to blow up the mosque where terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made that declaration in 2014, to keep the Iraqis from hanging their national flag above it. According to the NYT, Iraqi soldiers made do with triumphant selfies with the ruined mosque in the background, while the national flag was planted on the banks of the Tigris River in the Old City.
Abadi, whose public appearance was slightly delayed by fighting in the area, announced the successful culmination of what advisers from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition described as nine months of the most intense urban combat since World War II.
While Abadi congratulated Iraqi forces for liberating the city, and although his address has been widely portrayed as a declaration of victory, he did not formally pronounce victory until Monday afternoon.
The prime minister was keenly aware of the symbolic value of liberating Mosul, expressly thanking his “heroic forces” for their determination to “put an end to the myth of Daesh for good.”
“One or two pockets are still controlled by IS militants who have no more than two options: to surrender or to be killed,” said Abadi.
Unfortunately, large swathes of Mosul have been reduced to rubble, and most of its civilian population fled.
“The first challenge facing the Iraqi government and international organizations is to provide basic necessities of life for more than 400,000 Iraqis who have been displaced from the western part of Mosul, which mostly lies in ruins,” London School of Economics Middle East expert Fawaz Gerges told CNN, estimating a price tag of over a billion dollars just to rebuild the Old City.
Another analyst, Lina Khatib of Chatham House in London, warned that ISIS militants are still hiding among civilian populations in the Mosul region, ready to plague liberated areas with insurgent operations and even recapture villages after Iraqi armed forces pull out. Even the city of Fallujah, officially liberated last summer, is still so insecure that its own mayor doesn’t want to live there.
Furthermore, the Islamic State is only one of several factions in the area, which suffers from both racial tensions and the Sunni vs. Shia Islamic schism. There has been some talk about breaking the Mosul area down into semi-autonomous regions to alleviate these pressures.
The Kurdish Rudaw news service reported on Monday that Kurdish President Masoud Barzani called Prime Minister Abadi to offer congratulations for a victory that came “as the result of the coordination and cooperation between the Kurdistan Peshmerga and the Iraqi army.”