Sporadic clashes continued on Tuesday in Mosul, even after Iraq’s prime minister declared a “total victory” over ISIS in the city and at least one airstrike hit the Old City neighbourhood that was the scene of the fierce battle’s final days.
A plume of smoke rose into the air from the strike. ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) mortar shells landed near Iraqi positions and heavy gunfire could be heard on the western edge of the Old City.
The top U.S. general in Iraq said on Tuesday he did not see any major change to the numbers of American forces in Iraq after the recapture of the Iraqi city of Mosul, saying the campaign would continue to other towns held by the group.
“This fight is far from over. So I wouldn’t expect to see any significant change in our troop levels in the immediate future because there’s still hard work to be done by the Iraqis and the coalition,” Lt.-Gen. Stephen Townsend told a news briefing.
Despite losing control of its stronghold in Mosul, the group has seized more than 75 per cent of Imam Gharbi, a village on the western bank of the Tigris river some 70 kilometres south of Mosul, and reinforcements are expected, an Iraqi army officer said. Armed with machine guns and mortars, ISIS launched its attack on Imam Gharbi last week.
The developments underscore the dangers still posed by the militants after Iraqi forces announced they reclaimed full control of Mosul, once the country’s second-largest city, three years after it was seized by extremists.
Amnesty International warned in a report released Tuesday that the conflict in Mosul has created a “civilian catastrophe,” with the extremists carrying out forced displacement, killings and using civilians as human shields. The report also detailed violations by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition.
“The scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives during the military operation to retake Mosul must immediately be publicly acknowledged at the highest levels of government in Iraq and states that are part of the U.S.-led coalition,” said Lynn Maalouf, the research director for Mideast at Amnesty.
The report, which covers the first five months of this year, noted how ISIS fighters moved civilians with them around the city, preventing them from escaping, creating battle spaces with dense civilian populations and how “Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition failed to adapt their tactics.”
The Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition “continued to use imprecise, explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated urban environments,” Amnesty International stated.
On Monday evening, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came to Mosul for the second day in a row to declare “total victory.” Flanked by his senior military leadership at a small base on the edge of the Old City, al-Abadi said “this great feast day crowned the victories of the fighters and the Iraqis for the past three years.”
But the Iraqi leader also alluded to the brutality of the conflict, saying the triumph had been achieved “by the blood of our martyrs.”
While Mosul fell to ISIS in a matter of days in 2014, the campaign to retake the city, which began last October, has lasted nearly nine months.
For more than two years before the operation started, Iraqi forces backed by coalition airstrikes slowly clawed back territory from ISIS elsewhere in Iraq and tens of thousands of Iraqi troops went through a massive coalition training program.
The ISIS defeat in Mosul dealt a huge blow to the group’s so-called Islamic “caliphate” — territory that the militants seized, spanning large swaths of both Iraq and Syria — but also killed thousands, left entire neighbourhoods in ruins and displaced nearly 900,000 from their homes.
Thousands of civilians killed
Thousands of civilians are estimated to have been killed in the fight for the city, according to the provincial council of Nineveh, where Mosul is the capital — a toll that does not include those still believed buried under collapsed buildings.
Iraq’s military does not release official casualty numbers for soldiers killed in combat.
A statement late Monday from ISIS claimed its fighters were still attacking Iraqi soldiers in the al-Maydan area of Mosul’s Old City, purportedly killing and wounding many and seizing weapons and ammunition.
Also Monday, the United Nations said there was no end in sight to Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, despite the conclusion of the fighting in Mosul.
Of the more than 897,000 people displaced from Mosul, the UN said thousands of residents will probably not be able to return to the city because of “extensive damage caused during the conflict.”
“Make no mistake, this victory alone does not eliminate ISIS, and there’s still a tough fight ahead,” Lt.-Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said in a recorded video from Baghdad following al-Abadi’s statement.
“The coalition will continue to support our Iraqi partners until ISIS is defeated in Iraq,” Townsend added, calling on Iraqis to unite and prevent a return of the conditions that allowed the extremists’ rise more than three years ago.