Iraqi forces have entered the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself leader of Islamic State three years ago. The full seizure of the compound, which Iraqi troops were moving through, now appears imminent and would mark a highly symbolic moment in the war against Isis
The development means that government troops are now in the heart of the Old City – Isis’s last redoubt in Mosul – and probably within a fortnight of recapturing its entirety. The Iraqi prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, proclaimed the advance towards the mosque as “the end of the Isis state”.
Iraqi government forces however still remain outside several key Isis-held Old City districts, which had been earmarked ahead of the assault as the most difficult to capture.
Baghdadi declared a caliphate from the mosque, proclaiming himself its leader three years ago to the day – 29 June 2014 – when Isis was at the height of its power. The terror group had by then overrun much of northern Iraq and Syria, dismembering state control in both countries and establishing an ultraconservative brand of Islamic law over the lands and people that it conquered.
Isis is under pressure in both countries – in the Syrian city of Raqqa, US-backed Kurdish forces seeking to take it on Thursday claimed to have sealed off the last route out, intensifying a siege that has seen many of its leaders flee towards southern Syria.
The fight for the terror group’s last redoubt in Iraq has been grinding and savage, with Iraqi troops reporting house-to-house fighting with a battle-hardened enemy that refuses to surrender.
Isis last week toppled the Hadba minaret adjoining the mosque, causing extensive damage to the surrounding compound.
Iraqi special forces entered the compound and took control of the surrounding streets on Thursday afternoon, following a dawn push into the area, said Lt Gen Abdul Wahab al-Saadi. The compound has been rigged with an extensive network of explosives, which will delay a final push to seize what is left of it.
The densely packed Old City is thought still to house up to 100 well-armed Isis extremists, as well as tens of thousands of civilians, who have been gradually streaming out of ravaged buildings to safety over the past week. Five Isis militants were killed on Wednesday while trying to swim east across the Tigris river armed with explosives.
After months of fighting, the Isis hold in Mosul has shrunk to less than 0.8 square miles of territory, but the advances have come at considerable cost. Fierce street battles and widespread use of hidden bombs by the retreating extremists have taken a heavy toll on Iraqi troops, with more than 1,000 members of the Federal Police and military believed to have died in the fight for the city and its surrounds.
“There are hundreds of bodies under the rubble,” said special forces Maj Dhia Thamir, deployed inside the Old City.
Aridi acknowledged that some civilians had been killed by air strikes and artillery. “Of course there is collateral damage, it is always this way in war,” he said. “The houses are very old, so any bombardment causes them to collapse completely.”
Many Mosul neighbourhoods are in ruins, with close to 700,000 residents thought to remain in refugee camps, and thousands more joining them daily. The Old City is an almost impenetrable maze of upturned cars and rubble.
Unicef on Thursday renewed its call for thousands of children who are thought to remain in the city to be protected. “Children are facing multiple threats to their lives,” said Peter Hawkins, Unicef’s representative in Iraq. “Those stranded in the fighting are hiding in their basements, fearful of the next onslaught. Those who try to flee risk being shot or wounded.
“Hundreds of civilians have already been reported killed and used as human shields. Boys and girls who have managed to escape show signs of moderate malnutrition and carry emotional scars of the conflict.”
East Mosul, which was freed from Isis in February, has quickly returned to life, in contrast to the ravaged east, which remains largely deserted and foreboding. In the East, marketplaces bustle with residents who have returned from camps that had been set up to the south and east of the city.
Damage in the west is particularly intense close to the mosque, which had been a refuge for Isis fighters as the so-called caliphate disintegrated. The Nuri mosque was one of the great monuments in Islam after the grand mosques of Mecca and Medina, al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, rivalling others such as the Amr ibn al-’As mosque in Egypt and other more modern structures built in recent centuries.