BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces on Thursday recaptured the ruins of a historic mosque in Mosul that was destroyed earlier this month by the Islamic State and was once the symbolic center of its self-declared caliphate.
Counterterrorism troops retook the area of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and were continuing to advance through the remaining streets of Mosul’s Old City, Iraq’s military said in a statement. However, the mosque is little more than rubble.
Still, the move into the mosque compound carried major importance after months of fighting.
Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, declared “the end of the Daesh state” in Iraq even as the militants – known in Arabic as Daesh – held pockets of the city.
“We will keep following Daesh until we kill and capture the last member in Iraq,” said the statement from Abadi.
The Iraqi military released video footage a week ago that it said showed the moment the militants detonated explosive charges in the building and its famed 8th-century minaret, known as “al-hadba,” meaning the hunchback, due to its distinctive lean.
The mosque holds significance for the militants as the place where, in July 2014, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only known public appearance, calling on Muslims around the world to obey him as leader of the group’s new state. Just weeks before, the militants had scored a stunning victory in Mosul over Iraq’s armed forces, which collapsed with little fight.
Iraq’s battle to retake the city has dragged on for nearly nine grueling months, and Iraq’s military and the city’s civilians have suffered heavy casualties.
Commanders, however, say they are now in their final stretch, with less than a square mile of the city left to recapture. The winding, narrow streets of the Old City make clearing it slow and painstaking work, as Iraqi forces are forced to move on foot.
Iraq’s counterterrorism troops retook the mosque, but they have not entered the remains of the building yet, as it still may be rigged with explosives, Lt. Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, head of the force, told the Iraqi news channel Afaq.
Although both Iraq’s government and the U.S.-led coalition that is backing the fight against the Islamic State said the militants blew up the mosque in a final act of defiance, the Islamic State-affiliated news channel Amaq maintained that a coalition airstrike was responsible. Experts have argued that footage released by the Iraqi military appears to show a blast emanating from the building, rather than an airstrike from above.
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