Cornered Islamic State militants in Mosul set off suicide bombs and threw themselves into the Tigris river to escape advancing Iraqi forces on Saturday, as the fight for the city entered what the army said was its “final hours”.
Commanders declared Mosul would soon be back under their full control, marking an end to the largest urban battle since the Second World War.
The jihadist group promised to fight to the death for the tiny remaining sliver of land they still held on the western side of Iraq’s second city. But on the streets of the historic Old City, Isil’s last redoubt, troops were already celebrating.
Jubilant soldiers tore down the black flag of Isil, which had flown over Mosul for three years, hoisting up the Iraqi flag in its place.
“We are seeing now the last metres and then final victory will be announced,” said a host on Iraqi state TV. “It’s a matter of hours.”
Dozens of insurgents were killed and others tried to escape by swimming across the Tigris, which cuts the city in half, state TV added. Most of those making a last stand were foreigners, they said.
The battle for one of the group’s most important territories had brought fighters from all over the world, including Britain.
“The battle has reached the phase of chasing the insurgents in remaining blocks,” the Iraqi military said. “Some members of Daesh have surrendered.”
The fall of Mosul – the city whose looted central bank was used to fund Isil’s reign of terror – is a major step forward in the campaign to crush the terrorist group.
The brutal nine-month US-backed offensive to recapture Iraq’s second city cost the lives of thousands of civilians and countless more Iraqi forces.
Civilians who managed to escape have been rescued hungry and severely shell-shocked from months of virtual siege.
Some crawled, some hobbled out from the wreckage of their bombed-out neighbourhoods. The youngest carried the oldest and the children grappled with bags containing their family’s worldly belongings, suffering under the 50 degree heat.
To get to waiting Iraqi forces they had to walk past the 12th century Grand al-Nuri mosque, from where Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his famous – and only – appearance declaring their “caliphate”.
In one of its final acts of spite, the jihadists had rigged and blown up one of Iraq’s most revered sites to prevent the troops claiming its as a propaganda victory.
Mosul, the largest city under Isil control, had been the birthplace of the “caliphate”.
In the summer of 2014, Isil fighters stormed the city in a blitzkrieg that took the Iraqi government, and its troops, by surprise. US-trained soldiers downed their weapons and ran when they saw the jihadists approaching on commandeered Humvees.
It would be from the northern Iraqi city that Isil emirs would roll out their vision of an Islamist nation, all ruled over by an appointed caliph.
Some in Mosul had welcomed the jihadists. A majority Sunni Muslim city deeply mistrustful of the Shia-led government, many residents had believed they would offer protection.
But by the end, the civilians had become captives in a city-wide hostage crisis.
Troops have faced a high-tech enemy, whose campaign was fought using IED drones, Mad Max-style car bombs, foreign-trained snipers and a complex warren of tunnels.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISOF) were tested to their limits in the battle.
With ISOF units depleted by casualties, Iraqi federal police and army units carried out most of the fighting in the west. Many of these units proved more poorly trained, relying on coalition air strikes, which resulting in high civilian casualties and extensive damage to the city.
Nearly one million people have been displaced by the fighting, creating a humanitarian catastrophe which brought the United Nations and charities to their knees.
Stripped of Mosul, Isil’s dominion in Iraq will be reduced to mainly rural, desert areas west and south of the city where tens of thousands of people live.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the end of Isil’s “state of falsehood” a week ago, after security forces took the site of Mosul’s medieval mosque – although only after retreating militants blew it up.
Since the group’s height in 2015, it has lost 70 per cent of its territory in Iraq and 50 per cent in Syria.
In neighbouring Syria, US-allied Kurdish and Arab forces are closing in on the group’s capital, Raqqa.
Whether a victory in Mosul will contribute to a stable and secure Iraq is yet to be seen.
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