MOSUL, Iraq — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Mosul July 9 to congratulate Iraqi forces on wresting control of the country’s second-largest city from the Islamic State (IS).
Saad al-Hadithi, the spokesman for Abadi, said the formal declaration of victory over IS in what was formerly the terrorist group’s capital would not be announced before the full cleansing of the Old City of Mosul, where fighting continues. In the week leading up to the visit, Al-Monitor spent several days with Iraqi forces on the front lines.
In one part of the Old City, on July 5, a barefoot sniper in uniform sweated profusely in a sweltering tiny lookout room. Covering fire had just been provided below to allow a federal police officer carrying a block of ice in a sling across his back to run across the street, bringing much-needed water to the fighters who were on the verge of dehydration.
Other soldiers nearby dozed off on cardboard in the soporific heat, while about 20 men from the Rapid Response Division, which answers to the Interior Ministry, waited nervously in an alleyway.
The men gestured angrily when Al-Monitor tried to take a photo: It was crucial that IS not know they were there, at this exact spot in the warren of narrow alleyways of the Old City of Mosul. More soldiers arrived shortly afterward carrying RPGs. They were told to walk along one side of the alleyway because an improvised explosive device that had yet to be defused lay on the other side, covered with a heavy, bright floral-patterned blanket.
A major counterattack by IS fighters two days later reportedly forced the Iraqi army's 16th Division, tasked with the northwestern front line in Mosul's Old City, back some 75 meters (246 feet).
Federal police officers told Al-Monitor that IS held onto only a few hundred meters both north-to-south and east-to-west in the Old City as of the first week of July, along the western coast of the Tigris River.
The city that has been the Iraqi "capital" of IS for over 1,000 days is now very close to being retaken entirely, after an operation that began in mid-October 2016. A final push to retake the remaining sectors of the Old City began in mid-June.
Victory has repeatedly been "pre-announced" in recent weeks, only to have the official victory announcement postponed when regaining the remaining sliver of territory proved more difficult than expected.
A federal police celebration initially meant to mark the end to their mission in Mosul was held July 2 near the police headquarters in the southern Tayyaran district, retaken several months ago from IS. The "victory march" ended, however, with the band playing and officers sporting their best attire — but no announcement made.
Since the last week of June, Al-Monitor has repeatedly been told by many officers that IS' defeat would take "a day or two at the most and then it will be all over."
In October, some estimates said that the entire operation might only take a few weeks. Over eight months later, less than 1 square kilometer of territory is left in the city under IS’ control, but sleeper cell attacks continue in liberated areas.
Col. Hisham Khalifa Kazem, the commander of the 20th Brigade of the federal police’s 5th Division, told Al-Monitor in an interview July 4 near the front in Mosul’s Old City that "the enemy forces were focused in this area, and they use rooftops and tunnels" to move quickly and to hide men and ammunition from aircraft.
He noted that whenever they found a tunnel, his men would simply use a torch to see whether any IS fighters were hiding inside before covering them for the time being, because "they are all booby-trapped" and engineering units were more urgently required elsewhere.
Col. Nizar al-Jabouri, a bomb expert from the federal police, told Al-Monitor when interviewed in Bab al-Jadid, "Most of the civilians are killed by bombs planted outside their homes when they try to flee at night to avoid being killed by snipers. Many more people have been killed by bombs than by gunshots in the city."
Over several days spent at the front in the first week of July, Al-Monitor's reporter climbed through holes made in walls and over rooftops to get to sniper positions and was guided through alleyways with wires marking the doors of homes where explosives had not yet been cleared by members of the federal police.
The bodies of three large IS fighters, still wearing well-stocked ammo vests, were sprawled close together in one street and Al-Monitor was warned not to get too close, as they, too, might be booby-trapped.
Rubble was ubiquitous throughout the area, making many of the small alleyways impassable.
At one sniper position on the front line, civilians were stuck in a building less than 50 meters (164 feet) away and enemy snipers were preventing them from leaving. The Iraqi federal police marksman spoke to an officer holding a tablet computer, plotting coordinates to call in airstrikes.
The use of airstrikes was stepped up significantly after IS blew up the Al-Nuri Grand Mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had made a rare public appearance on July 4, 2014, to announce his acceptance of the title of "commander of the faithful."
The IS caliphate had been announced a few days prior, after taking control of the city in early June 2014.
Following the destruction of the famous mosque on June 21, there seems to be somewhat less compunction about destroying the city’s historical heritage if this will result in victory against the transnational terrorist group.
Some of the officers who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity — and all of whom were from the southern, predominantly Shiite part of the country — said they believed it was better that the historic mosque of the mainly Sunni city was no longer there, since it was seen as a symbol of IS power.
Most Mosul residents instead saw it as a symbol of their city itself, alongside the nearby leaning al-Hadba minaret that was also destroyed.
Meanwhile, female suicide bombers have been used against the Iraqi Special Operations Forces in recent days, blowing themselves up amid civilians exiting former IS-held territory.
The fear lingers that some of those fleeing the massive rubble-strewn wastelands that much of Mosul has become under the guise of civilians may instead have been heavily involved with IS activities.
The thousands of gaunt bodies with ill-treated wounds climbing over the rubble and braving sniper fire in order to leave after months under siege are seen as potential threats to the security forces, who sometimes help carry the elderly and injured for short distances but sometimes just watch warily.
Iraqi forces rely heavily on locals tipping them off to who was involved and who wasn’t. But security and terrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi told Al-Monitor in an interview in late June that "the wives and families" of IS fighters often had no idea.
And while the morale of troops has risen significantly as the operation makes progress after several months of almost no movement at all in some areas, the Iraqi summer heat is taking its toll. Temperatures of above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) make water as crucial as ammunition in the fight to liberate Mosul.