Mosul victory in 'days' as pressure on IS mounts
Iraq will declare victory over the Islamic State group in Mosul during the "next few days," a senior commander said on Friday, as pressure also mounts on the extremists in Syria.
IS, which declared a cross-border "caliphate" encompassing swathes of Iraq and Syria three years ago, is now facing twin offensives in Mosul and Raqqa, its two most emblematic strongholds.
But while the loss of the two cities would be a major blow to IS, it would not mark the end of the threat posed by the group, which is likely to return to insurgent-style attacks that were its hallmark in years past.
"In the next few days, we will announce the final victory over Daesh," Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a senior commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, told AFP in Mosul, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
However, there has often been a gap between the declaration of victory and the actual end of fighting in a given area in the course of Iraq's multi-year war against IS.
Iraqi forces launched the gruelling battle for Mosul on October 17, advancing to the city and retaking its eastern side before setting their sights on the smaller but more densely populated west.
The group is now confined to a small area of Mosul's Old City, but its narrow streets and the presence of civilians has made the operation to retake it perilous.
Assadi estimated that there are between 200 and 300 IS fighters left in the city, most of them foreigners.
Iraqi forces captured the iconic Nuri mosque in Mosul on Thursday, the site where IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only known public appearance in 2014, calling on Muslims worldwide to obey him.
IS blew up the mosque and the famed Al-Hadba (hunchback) leaning minaret last week as Iraqi forces closed in.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the recapture of the mosque as a sign of IS's impending defeat.
"We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state," Abadi said in an English statement on his Twitter account.
The US-led coalition against the group also said that the end of the battle was near.
In neighbouring Syria, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are fighting to retake Raqqa, IS's de facto capital in the country.
On Thursday, they cut off IS's last escape route, trapping them inside the city.
On Friday, clashes were ongoing in several parts of Raqqa and the coalition was carrying out airstrikes.
The SDF broke into Raqqa on June 6 after spending months chipping away at their territory around the city.
Its fighters have since captured two eastern and two western districts of the city and are pushing towards its centre, where IS fighters are holding tens of thousands of civilians.