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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Iraqi PM’s Mosul rhetoric does not square with reality

With fanfare Al Abadi puts nail in ISIL’s coffin, but his military commanders are not so bold

Iraqi forces members patrol in the Old City of Mosul on July 1, 2017 where they are battling some of the last members ISIL in the city. AFP
Iraqi forces members patrol in the Old City of Mosul on July 1, 2017 where they are battling some of the last members ISIL in the city. AFP

ERBIL // It was a statement Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi had been waiting to deliver to his countrymen for a long time. Within hours of his armed forces taking the grounds of Mosul's Al Nuri Mosque, he announced the demise of the insurgent group that had been terrorising his country for the past three years.

"The return of Al Nuri Mosque and Al Hadba minaret to the fold of the nation marks the end of the Daesh state of falsehood," Mr Al Abadi declared on Thursday.

The soldiers battling to eliminate the vestiges of ISIL in Mosul will have taken satisfaction from the words of their prime minister. It is, after all, their achievement that the extremist group's hold on Iraq has been reduced to a quickly diminishing area of Mosul's Old City and a few pockets and areas of desert hinterland elsewhere in the country.

But they will have also questioned the statement's validity. To them, ISIL is still very much present, and poses a lethal threat as they move to crush all extremist resistance in the dense labyrinth of narrow alleys that makes up Mosul's historic core.

Explosive booby traps have been planted in the streets or hidden in houses that the elite troops of Iraq's counter-terrorism service storm on foot. Militant snipers lie in wait in the ancient stone houses.

Even the crowds of terrified civilians who flee the battlefield as soon as the front line rolls past them pose a threat: The militants sometimes walk among these civilians, suicide vests strapped to their waists, ready to detonate as soon as they reach Iraqi lines.

Soldiers are still losing their lives daily in battle against an enemy that has been declared vanquished.

Mr Al Abadi has a history of declaring victory prematurely. During the battle for Fallujah last year, the prime minister announced the liberation of the city soon after the government complex had been retaken. The fighting raged for another two weeks before ISIL was finally kicked out.

The commanders of the counter-terrorism service, known as Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), are more astute in their assessments.

"This will be the most difficult phase of the battle for Mosul," Lt Gen Abdul Ghani Al Asadi, the top ISOF commander on the ground, told The National on June 20, two days into the offensive to retake the Old City. Even now, ISOF top brass are reluctant to sound triumphalist.

The loss of life suffered by Iraq's special forces has been too great for them to speak of a final defeat of their bitter enemy before the deed is done. A budget request by the US department of defence released in May put ISOF's casualty rate in Mosul at 40 per cent.

The offensive to retake Iraq's second city only began on October 17 last year, but ISOF and other Iraqi forces had already been fighting for more than two years to beat back ISIL’s determined push for total control of the country.

The battle for Mosul is almost done. But with the insurgents still surviving in remote areas of western Iraq, and holding the towns of Hawija and Tel Afar, the battle for Iraq is far from over.

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