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Iraqi forces reclaim historic Mosul mosque as ISIS territory shrinks

June 29, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Iraqi forces have recaptured from the Islamic State group a mosque compound in Western Mosul, a major symbolic victory after months of fighting. The al-Nouri Mosque is where ISIS's leader declared the formation of a so-called caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria in 2014. William Brangham reports on the state of battle and the displacement of thousands of people.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The battle for the largest city held by ISIS appears close to being over. Iraqi government forces captured an ancient landmark in the old city of Mosul today, a significant symbolic victory. The militants now hold very little territory in the city, once home to one-and-a-half million Iraqis.

William Brangham reports.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For Iraqi forces, it’s clearly a major victory after months of block-by-block fighting. They have recaptured Western Mosul’s al-Nuri Mosque compound, and what remains of its 12th century minaret.

HASSAN SALEH JABER, Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (through interpreter): We stormed the area in the early hours of the morning from different directions. We stormed the mosque and secured the area, and operations are going on to fully clear and search the area.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The compound was blown up by ISIS fighters last week as they retreated, but that did little to diminish the symbolism of today’s events.

In a statement, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said: “It marks the end of the ISIS state of falsehood.”

In July 2014, the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, stood in the al-Nuri Mosque just weeks after his forces seized the city and announced the formation of a so-called caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria.

ABU BAKR AL-BAGHDADI, Islamic State Leader (through interpreter): God has granted your brothers, the mujahideen, victory and a conquest after years of patience and holy struggle, and enabled them to achieve their objective.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There have been recent claims from the Russians and the Iranians that al-Baghdadi has been killed, but the U.S. hasn’t confirmed that.

Now his group now holds less than one square mile of territory in the western half of the city. Part of Mosul’s Old City remains under ISIS control, as does a key nearby hospital complex.

U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon is a spokesman for the coalition that’s supporting Iraqi forces, the ISF.

COL. RYAN DILLON, Spokesman, Operation Inherent Resolve: The Old City still remains a difficult, dense, suffocating fight. Tight alleyways with booby-traps, civilians, and ISIS fighters around every corner make the ISF’s advance extremely challenging.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Last October, Iraqi units and their allies opened the campaign to retake Mosul, and captured the eastern half of the city by late January. The assault on Western Mosul began in February. Even now, it’s believed thousands of people are still trapped there.

MAN (through interpreter): Yes, there many families there still, hundreds of families all around. It’s miserable. There is no bread or water at all.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: These months of battle have displaced more than 850,000 people. Hundreds arrived today at a processing center run by Iraqi forces as they attempted to flee for refugee camps.

Military trucks carried men, women and children out, as others tried to make their way back in to newly reclaimed areas.

MAN (through interpreter): Our neighborhood was liberated more than three months ago. We fled even before the liberation of our neighborhood and ISIS was chasing us from house to house.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meanwhile, in Syria, U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters have seized the last road into Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital. The Syrian Democratic Forces are now in control of all major routes into the city.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

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