Reuters Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (R) is pictured in Mosul Iraq, July 9, 2017. Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS Image Credit: REUTERS

Mosul: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi arrived in Mosul to declare it liberated from Daesh, three years after the city’s abrupt fall to the terrorists alerted the world to the group’s growing strength, territorial ambitions and barbarity.

Al Abadi congratulated the Iraqi people and fighters on a “great victory” after the last pockets under Daesh control were retaken, according to a tweet from his media office.

The campaign to free Mosul from Daesh entered its final phase in the narrow streets of the Old City mid-June, eight months after thousands of Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters backed by US-led air strikes began their offensive. Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition, has described it as the toughest urban warfare he has seen in 34 years of service.

Retaking Mosul marks a major blow against Daesh, whose leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi made his first speech as self-proclaimed ‘caliph’ from one of the city’s mosques in 2014. The group is now diminished, having lost much of its territory spanning northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Its ability to attract foreign terrorists is also dented, although it continues to inspire terrorists abroad who have staged terrorist attacks from London to Tehran. For Al Abadi, whose government has struggled to overcome political and sectarian challenges and rebuild an economy stripped of oil revenue, it’s a major success.

There have been scenes of jubilation as Iraqi forces have slowly taken back control of Mosul, removing the black banners of the terrorist group. The United Nations says as many as 150,000 residents were trapped in the Old City when the battle there began, with illness and disease spreading as clean drinking water, food and medicine ran low. Daesh used those who stayed as human shields, according to the UN. Over the last few months, it has massacred hundreds who attempted to flee the city in an attempt to deter others from doing the same.

In one of its final acts of defiance, Daesh blew up the Al Nouri Mosque on June 22. The monument, whose iconic leaning minaret is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar note, once towered above the historic city centre. It was there that Al Baghdadi made his first sermon as self-proclaimed ‘caliph’ and called on the world’s Muslims to obey him.

Brutal punishment

As the group sought to entrench its strict interpretation of Islam, it meted out brutal punishments to those who opposed it. Children were trained to be fighters. It also destroyed ancient sites it said were heresy to its ideology — apart from the Al Nouri Mosque, Mosul’s museum was ransacked.

Mosul was Daesh’s most important bastion along with Raqqa, its self-styled capital, in Syria. It featured in its propaganda videos, many filmed in the style of television news reports. British hostage John Cantlie appeared in at least five that sought to portray the city as an example of utopian governance with a bustling economy. In reality, residents described shortages and struggles to cope with rising prices for basic foods and fuel.

An estimated 2.4 million people lived in Mosul before the war, making it northern Iraq’s largest city. Hundreds of thousands fled after it was captured and as operations began to retake it in October 2016, with many seeking refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and camps nearby.

Lightning assault

Daesh took advantage of the poor military performance of Iraqi troops — and portrayed itself as a champion of Sunni Arabs who felt alienated by a Shiite-led government — in its lightening assault across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. It then headed south toward Baghdad, triggering fears of the country’s break-up as ethnic and sectarian tensions surged.

Iraqi forces and militias supported by Iran had pushed Daesh into reverse with months-long battles in key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, before moving on to Mosul. The air power, artillery, and intelligence provided by a US-led coalition helped secure the city’s eastern neighbourhoods in January. Residents returned to their homes, children went back to school; shopkeepers reopened stores, free to sell whatever they choose.

Battlefield progress then slowed as fighting moved deeper into the Old City, as Iraqi forces entered dense neighbourhoods and faced persistent counter-attacks. With the offensive from the south stalling, Iraqi troops repositioned to begin a new offensive from the north in May.

Last urban stronghold

Mosul was Daesh’s last main urban centre in Iraq, but it still controls several areas in the west and northeast part of the country, including Hawija near Kirkuk.

As Daesh’s territory collapses, it has shifted its emphasis on state building and governance to survival, and analysts say battlefield losses don’t spell the end of its ideology. A cappella hymn, or nasheed, released this month insists the terrorist group won’t vanish despite the setbacks: “Oh people of error, it (the state) is remaining, not vanishing, Anchored like the mountains.”

The message is “clearly addressing the current losses faced by the Daesh amid the coalition campaign against it,” said Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, an analyst at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, who translated the nasheed.

“Military defeat and the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq will be insufficient to sway the views of Daesh supporters,” IHS Markit, a London-based information and analytics group, said in a June 29 report. “The group’s video productions have declined in frequency, suggesting that it is less capable of disseminating its messages. However, it has already prepared its followers for the loss of territory.”