Total victory. This triumphant declaration from Iraq on July 10 aptly captured the colossal effort put in as well as what it meant to overthrow the Islamic State (IS) group in Mosul and retake full control of the country’s second-largest city three years after it was seized by extremists bent on building a global caliphate.
“This great feast day crowned the victories of the fighters and the Iraqis for the past three years,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
While Mosul fell to IS in a matter of days in 2014, the campaign to retake the city lasted nearly nine months. The fight, closely backed by airstrikes from the US-led coalition, has also left thousands dead, entire neighbourhoods in ruins and nearly 900,000 displaced from their homes.
Al-Abadi alluded to the brutality of the battle for Mosul – Iraq’s longest yet in the fight against IS – saying the triumph had been achieved “by the blood of our martyrs.”
“The victory in Mosul, a city where ISIS once proclaimed its so-called ‘caliphate’ signals that its days in Iraq and Syria are numbered. ISIS is falling fast, very fast,” US President Donald Trump said in a statement.
Importance of Mosul
Mosul held deep symbolic importance for IS. It was after IS overran the city in June 2014 that they declared a caliphate stretching from territory in northern Syria deep into Iraq’s north and west.
And it was from Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only public appearance when he gave a Friday sermon calling on all Muslims to follow him as ‘caliph’. He vowed that IS would conquer ‘Rome’, and the entire world.
Mosul was also the bureaucratic and financial backbone of IS. In the early days of IS growth in Iraq and Syria, former Saddam-era military officers from Mosul made up some of the group’s highest-ranking members and helped garner supporters in Iraq.
Raiding Mosul’s central bank, and taxing and extorting the city’s wealthy inhabitants made IS the richest terrorist organisation in the world in the summer of 2014. Mosul’s vast industrial zones were converted into factories for weapons and explosives.
Iraq spent more than two years rebuilding its armed forces and preparing for the Mosul offensive. Some 70,000 forces drawn from Iraq’s army, special forces, the federal police, and tribal and militia fighters were mobilised for the fight, according to Iraq’s joint operations command.
Initially, Iraqi forces planned to attack the city simultaneously from multiple fronts — north, east and south. But forces without urban combat experience and limited training quickly proved incapable of leading pushes and instead were moved to act largely as holding forces.
A US-led coalition began striking IS in August 2014, and the campaign eventually grew into a massive effort that has cost more than $13 billion and has some 6,000 US forces stationed at bases across Iraq.
The coalition support proved to be the critical factor. Iraqi forces repeatedly called in airstrikes to kill just one or two IS fighters armed with light weapons. Iraqi commanders said this approach was adopted to keep military casualties to a minimum.
In the week prior to the final assault, Iraqi troops slowly pushed through the narrow alleys of the Old City, punching holes through walls and demolishing houses to carve supply routes and fighting positions in a district where many of the buildings date back centuries.
For days, the last few hundred militants held an area measuring less than a square kilometre in the dense terrain of Old City, where the United Nations estimated IS held more than 100,000 people as human shields.
Cost of Victory
The drawn-out endgame in Iraq’s fight for Mosul highlighted the resilience of the extremists. Iraqi commanders said gains slowed to a crawl as IS fighters used their families – including women and children – as human shields. As the battle space constricted, the coalition began approving airstrikes dropping bombs of 200 pounds or more on IS targets within 50 metres of friendly forces.
Plumes of smoke grew larger than the strip of territory under IS control. “This used to be a beautiful city, tourists used to come here,” said Iraqi Army Capt Marwan Hadi. “The last days of the fight for Mosul were the fiercest. All along the front line, there are so many families under the rubble,” he said.
Reports of civilian casualties spiked as Iraqi forces punched into Mosul’s western half in February. In all, 5,805 civilians may have been killed in the fight for western Mosul by coalition attacks, said Amnesty stating that the fighting generated a “civilian catastrophe.”
Iraq’s military has also suffered high casualty rates. The government does not disclose official death tolls, but many of the units leading assaults in Mosul faced attrition rates of upward of 25% when engaged in urban combat.
The US Central Command has described the fight as the most significant urban combat since World War II.
The United Nations said there was no end in sight to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq despite the conclusion of the fighting. Of the more than 897,000 people displaced from Mosul, the UN said thousands of residents will probably not be able to return to the city because of “extensive damage caused during the conflict.”
The infrastructure in western Mosul, where the fighting was fiercest, has been decimated. Iraq’s civil defence rescue teams – a branch of the Interior Ministry – said about 65% of the buildings in the Old City were severely damaged or destroyed. In other western neighbourhoods, destruction was estimated to be higher: some 70% of all houses, buildings and infrastructure.
The levels of destruction are dramatically different between Mosul’s east and west. Complexes in the east used by IS fighters, like the city’s university, were heavily bombed. But many of the east’s residential neighborhoods suffered relatively little damage.
In the west, however, entire city blocks are damaged or destroyed. It was also in western Mosul that a single US airstrike killed more than a hundred civilians sheltering in basement of a single home.
“Daesh, when they came to Iraq, their goal was to destroy everything,” said Hisham Hatem, an officer with the federal police stationed at Mosul’s main hospital complex, a series of buildings that was shredded by weeks of artillery and airstrikes. Hatem said IS used tactics to draw out the fight for Mosul to ensure little of the city would be left after the group’s defeat.
Human rights and aid groups warn that such widespread destruction could undermine the military victory and make it more difficult for the hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled the west to return to their homes.
A Lingering Threat
As the group’s physical caliphate has crumbled, its insurgent network appears to have remained intact. IS still boasts powerful affiliates in Afghanistan and in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula, where an attack on an army outpost recently killed 23 soldiers. It also maintains an online presence that allows it to recruit followers and inspire so-called lone wolf attacks that require no central planning.
The group has proven resilient in the past. Its previous incarnation, as al-Qaida in Iraq, was virtually wiped out by US and Iraqi forces, only to rise from the ashes again.