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EghtesadOnline: Three years after Mosul’s abrupt fall to jihadists alerted the world to Islamic State’s growing strength, territorial ambitions and barbarity, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi traveled to the city to declare it liberated once more.

Abadi congratulated the Iraqi people and fighters on a “great victory” as the last pockets under Islamic State control were being retaken, according to a tweet from his media office.

“We are glad to see life back to normal for civilians in Mosul and all that was a result of the sacrifices of our heroes who amazed the world with their bravery,” Abadi said in a Twitter posting.

Residents danced and celebrated in the streets, honking horns, playing national music, raising Iraqi flags and spraying water on each other, Rayan Salahudin, who’d been marooned in Mosul with his family since the city fell to Islamic State militants three years ago, said in a telephone interview.

“There are no words to describe the happiness and joy we are feeling right now,” Salahudin said.

The campaign to free Mosul from Islamic State entered its final phase in the narrow streets of the Old City in mid-June, eight months after thousands of Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters backed by U.S.-led air strikes began their offensive. Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition, has described it as the toughest urban warfare he has seen in 34 years of service.

Major Blow

Retaking the city marks a major blow against Islamic State, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first speech as self-proclaimed caliph from one of Mosul’s mosques in 2014. The group is now diminished, having lost much of its territory spanning northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Its ability to attract foreign fighters is also dented, although it continues to inspire militants abroad who have staged terrorist attacks from London to Tehran.

For Abadi, whose government has struggled to overcome political and sectarian challenges and rebuild an economy stripped of oil revenue, it’s a major success.

Scenes of jubilation have followed as Iraqi forces have gradually taken back control of Mosul, removing the black banners of the jihadist group. The United Nations says as many as 150,000 residents were trapped in the Old City when the battle there began, with illness and disease spreading as clean drinking water, food and medicine ran low. Islamic State used those who stayed as human shields, according to the UN. Over the last few months, it has massacred hundreds who attempted to flee the city in an attempt to deter others from doing the same.

Brutal Punishment

In one of its final acts of defiance, Islamic State blew up the Great Mosque of al-Nuri on June 22. The monument, whose iconic leaning minaret is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar note, once towered above the historic city center. It was there that Baghdadi made his first sermon as self-proclaimed caliph and called on the world’s Muslims to obey him, dressed in a black robe and turban to signify his claim of descent from the Prophet Muhammad.

As the group sought to entrench its strict interpretation of Islam, it meted out brutal punishments to those who opposed it. Children were trained to be fighters. It also destroyed ancient sites it said were heresy to its ideology -- apart from the Great Mosque, Mosul also lost the Tomb of Jonah. Its museum was ransacked.

Mosul was Islamic State’s most important bastion along with Raqqa in Syria, its self-styled capital. It featured in its propaganda videos, many filmed in the style of television news reports. British hostage John Cantlie appeared in at least five that sought to portray the city as an example of Utopian governance with a bustling economy. In reality, residents described shortages and struggles to cope with rising prices for basic foods and fuel.

An estimated 2.4 million people lived in Mosul before the war, making it northern Iraq’s largest city. Hundreds of thousands fled after it was captured and as operations began to retake it in October 2016, with many seeking refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and camps nearby.

Six-Year War

Islamic State evolved from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. troops and Sunni militias defeated after its powers peaked in 2006 to 2007 in a campaign that was known as the Awakening. It was able to expand in 2013 in Syria, where a civil war has raged for more than six years, attracting fighters from Chechnya, Afghanistan, North Africa and Europe.

The extremists took advantage of the poor military performance of Iraqi troops -- portraying themselves as a champion of Sunni Arabs who felt alienated by a Shiite-led government -- in a lightening assault across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. The group then headed south toward Baghdad, triggering fears of the country’s breakup as ethnic and sectarian tensions surged.

Iraqi forces and militias supported by Iran had pushed Islamic State into reverse with months-long battles in key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, before moving on to Mosul. The air power, artillery, and intelligence provided by a U.S.-led coalition helped secure the city’s eastern neighborhoods in January. Residents returned to their homes, children went back to school, and shopkeepers reopened stores, free to sell whatever they choose.

Clinics Reopening

Battlefield progress then slowed as fighting moved deeper into the Old City, as Iraqi forces entered dense neighborhoods and faced persistent counterattacks. With the offensive from the south stalling, Iraqi troops repositioned to begin a new offensive from the north in May.

The western part of Mosul is “almost ruined,” Salahudin said, comparing it to the war-ravaged Aleppo in Syria. Some medical clinics on the eastern side have reopened and meats and vegetables are available now, although state employees haven’t received salaries from the government in two years, he said.

“Sadly, Mosul now is not the Mosul you and I used to know any more,” Salahudin said. “But we are optimistic we will be able to heal our wounds and that the dark chapter in our history will remain just a history.”

While Mosul was Islamic State’s last main urban center in Iraq, it still controls several areas in the west and northeast part of the country, including Hawija near Kirkuk.

Noureddin Qablan, vice chairman of the council in Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, said by phone on July 3 from the city that Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders have met to prevent the eruption of sectarian or nationalist conflicts. “There are possibilities, but they are weak,” he said, citing the absence of violence in parts of the city freed months ago.

Territory Losses

Keeping the peace won’t be easy, said Kamran Bokhari, a fellow with George Washington University’s program on extremism. Local leaders need to prevent the spiraling of tensions over sectarian differences and the region’s political and economic plight, which Islamic State would look to exploit, he said. “But will they be able to?”

As Islamic State’s territory has shrunk, the group has shifted its emphasis from state-building and governance to survival, and analysts say battlefield losses don’t spell the end of its ideology. A cappella hymn, or nasheed, released this month insists the jihadist group won’t vanish despite the setbacks: “Oh people of error, it (the state) is remaining, not vanishing, Anchored like the mountains.”

The message is “clearly addressing the current losses faced by the Islamic State amid the coalition campaign against it,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an analyst at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, who translated the nasheed.

“Military defeat and the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq will be insufficient to sway the views of Islamic State supporters,” IHS Markit, a London-based information and analytics group, said in a June 29 report. “The group’s video productions have declined in frequency, suggesting that it is less capable of disseminating its messages. However, it has already prepared its followers for the loss of territory.”

ISIS Mosul Islamic State Haider al-Abadi Mosul battle Mosul liberation