Iraqi forces capture historic Mosul mosque

Taking the Grand al-Nuri Mosque hands a symbolic victory to the Iraqi forces which have been battling for more than eight month to capture Mosul.

FILE: Members of the Iraqi federal police advance through the Old City of Mosul on 28 June 2017. Picture: AFP.

MOSUL, IRAQ - Iraqi forces on Thursday captured the wrecked historic mosque of Mosul in which Islamic State proclaimed its self-styled caliphate three years ago, an Iraqi military statement said.

Taking the Grand al-Nuri Mosque hands a symbolic victory to the Iraqi forces which have been battling for more than eight months to capture Mosul, the northern city that served as Islamic State's de facto capital in Iraq.

The insurgents blew up the medieval mosque and its landmark leaning minaret a week ago, as US-backed Iraqi forces started a push in its direction. Their black flag had been floating on al-Hadba, the hunchback minaret, since June 2014.

HUMAN SHIELDS

The Iraqi government once hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but fighting has dragged on as militants have reinforced positions in civilian areas, effectively using residents as human shields.

Hundreds of civilians who managed to escape as the forces advanced into the Old City gathered on the side of the road at the edge of western Mosul on Tuesday.

But hundreds of civilians have been killed in the past month as they tried to flee the Old City.

The militants last week destroyed the historic Grand al-Nuri Mosque and its leaning minaret from which their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago. The mosque’s grounds remain under the militants’ control.

Iraqi troops on Monday captured the al-Faruq quarter, facing the mosque, the military said.

Only a handful of districts remained to be cleared, al-Saadi said, standing atop a rooftop overlooking al-Faruq street which now marks the frontline, a few dozen metres from the old mosque.

Sporadic sniper fire could be heard, and an incoming rocket, as the troops used a drone to survey the insurgents’ defenses. The Iraqi forces started attacking the western side of Mosul in February, a month after taking the side located east of the Tigris.

About 850,000 people, more than a third of Mosul’s pre-war population, have fled, seeking refuge with relatives or in camps, according to aid groups.

Islamic State’s Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is assumed to be hiding on the Iraqi-Syrian border. There has been no confirmation of Russian reports over the past days that he has been killed.

The group has carried out sporadic suicide bombings in parts of Mosul using sleeper cells. It launched a wave of such attacks late on Sunday, trying to take control of a district west of the Old City, Hay al-Tanak, and the nearby Yarmuk quarter.

Security forces blocked their attempted fight-back, al-Saadi said.