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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Death throes of the caliphate

Published by The Mail on Sunday (9th July, 2017)

The scenes of destruction were simply apocalyptic. Every street pockmarked by bombs, every building wrecked, every home destroyed, every car smashed up.

The sweet stench of death hung in the air. A bloated corpse lay sprawled in what was once a shop, close to a vehicle rigged up for a jihadi suicide attack. Many more bodies were buried beneath the rubble.

Yet clusters of dazed civilians – wounded old men, shocked women, starving children – still emerged from the carnage to be whisked away from the front line. Casualties were treated in a field hospital, hastily built in a former garage.

This is Farouk Street, once a thriving shopping centre in the ancient old city of Mosul. For three years, this place has been the heart of Islamic State’s reign of terror over the Middle East. Now it is in ruins as Iraqi troops, aided by coalition air raids and squads of special forces combing the shattered city, move in on the final positions held by the black-clad militants.

‘The caliphate has fallen,’ yelled one Iraqi soldier triumphantly to me as his battered black Humvee raced past, squirting up clouds of thick dust that soon merged with dark smoke rising from nearby rocket strikes.

Not yet. But Iraq’s second city will be liberated soon. And this will be a crushing blow for the hideous group of fanatics that inflicted such misery on millions.

‘We will have the city in one or two days,’ I was told by General Amer, head of the Iraqi Army’s 3rd Brigade. State television predicted yesterday they would have full control within hours.

British and Kurdish sources are more cautious, but they also expect the final 100 or so IS fighters hiding in an enclave by the River Tigris to be finished off rapidly. ‘A maximum of one week,’ said a senior Kurdish intelligence figure.

This will be a deeply symbolic moment. For it was in this city that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious Islamic State leader, made his only public appearance three years ago to declare the dawn of his ‘caliphate’.

Baghdadi spoke in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri – destroyed, along with its famous, tilting al-Hadba minaret, a fortnight ago, reportedly by IS to ensure no rival flags flew over the iconic site that has dominated the city’s skyline for eight centuries.

I stood among the sad wreckage on Friday. Drones circled over my head, guiding mortar, rockets and troops to IS hideouts in streets nearby. Occasionally there was a double thump, indicating the destruction of a suicide vehicle or explosives cache.

As bursts of gunfire crackled and bullets whistled, I stared at the intricately patterned stump of the al-Hadba minaret that flew the infamous IS black flag for three long years after Baghdadi’s speech.

Then I clambered on a pile of rubble to look at the mosque’s green dome, sitting so precariously atop white-painted walls with huge chunks blown away on two corners. ‘Be careful – there may still be bombs,’ warned a soldier.

Now there are claims Baghdadi is dead, while many of his most loyal lieutenants have been wiped out. And I was witnessing the death throes of a fierce struggle to seize back Mosul.

We entered the old city in a car sandwiched between Iraqi special forces in armoured vehicles. At our first stop, I noticed two suspected IS fighters locked in a small cage holding an electricity generator beside the street, awaiting interrogation.

The group has used snipers, suicide missions, booby-trapped buildings, tunnels and even bombs dropped by drones to slow the advancing forces, who moved slowly through the labyrinth of close-knit streets aided by British-backed air strikes.

One well-placed Kurdish source claimed 3,000 IS militants have been killed during fighting in the city. ‘They were mostly foreigners since the locals can escape back into their communities,’ he said.

This does not bode well for the future of this tormented and divided nation. Several senior IS figures were Saddam Hussein loyalists, and even in areas freed of their suffocating grip there have been waves of fresh attacks from sleeper cells.

Mosul, once home to two million people including many Christians, Kurds and Yazidis, was grabbed unexpectedly easily by a few hundred jihadis in 2014. Thousands of residents fled immediately, with many more pouring out over recent months.

This savage battle to extinguish IS began 265 days ago. It took three months to capture the eastern parts of the city before the tougher fight west of the river. It has already lasted at least two months longer than the epic Second World War siege of Stalingrad.

It was hard not to think of such terrible moments in history as I walked along the maze of mutilated streets, strewn with weapons casings alongside all the humdrum debris of human lives: clothes, cutlery, keys, toys, identity cards, even passports.

The crammed old city was perfect for resistance from battle-hardened militants happy to die in their twisted religious fanaticism. Families were used as human shields – and even now thousands are hiding still in homes despite lack of food and water.

‘It was like being dead,’ said Om Omar, 45, who escaped that morning with her husband. ‘We were begging Daesh [Arabic for IS] to give us food but they said they needed it for their people. Now we have lost everything’

Her face was scarred by injuries from a mortar explosion in April which killed her daughter. ‘My daughter was waiting for this moment of liberation,’ said Omar. ‘I was looking at her picture today and crying so much.’

She was taken off with 30 others on the back of a lorry to one of the camps for displaced people that have sprung up around the region. A 22-year-old woman with her sister’s family sobbed, crying out that her mother was still in the combat zone.

Many of the men were kept for stringent Iraqi intelligence screening, partly based on seized IS documents such as lists of fighters receiving salaries. No doubt some of those staying on in these final days of IS control are supporters or sympathisers.

‘When we were freeing the east side of the city, people were laughing and clapping us,’ said one senior Iraqi officer. ‘But on this side in the old city no one smiles, no one applauds us. I think they’re all Daesh.’

Yet even as its power ebbs, IS inflicts terror on the population. Ibrahim Hamza, 45, a driver and father of eight, told me how a European-looking militant kneecapped him when he refused orders to move his family as human shields.

‘I said we could not go,’ said Hamza, his leg heavily bandaged. ‘He shot me with his AK rifle. Then he went outside to set fire to my car, saying that I had five minutes to move otherwise he would pour petrol on me and set me alight.’

His wife rapidly tied a tourniquet, then his family and friends helped Hamza escape from the house only for a helicopter to start shooting at them, assuming they were fleeing fighters. His daughter was hit in the leg, his son in the back.

When they reached an IS-run medical centre, a commander laughed at their plight. ‘You should be thankful,’ he told the heavily bleeding man. ‘Two hours ago we were given new orders – we were told to starting shooting people in the forehead.’

Another family said they escaped two weeks ago by racing through a checkpoint. ‘They started shooting at us with a heavy machine gun,’ said Muaser, 23. ‘We were terrified.’ A relative following them in a second car was killed.

A few hundred yards from the front line I found civil defence volunteers helping those trapped in buildings and clearing out corpses. ‘We have to break the cement to reach families hiding in cellars,’ said one team leader. ‘Most of them are dead.’

There were also two bearded Americans, an Australian in flip-flops and a young Swedish man sitting casually on a battered sofa, and broken wheelchair in the street as French special forces strode past from the front. Such is the weirdness of war.

They turned out to be former military medics who had volunteered to help. Behind them was a basic field hospital with three trolleys, intravenous drips and boxes of medical supplies, along with some Iraqi colleagues sitting in the shade.

‘Our job is to keep people alive long enough to get them to hospital,’ said Emil Andersson, who took a month off his building job south of Stockholm. ‘It feels good when you save someone’s life. It feels more important than construction.’

I watched as a weak 73-year-old man, suffering from lack of food and a small bullet wound in his shoulder, was revived. Even as medics worked on him, soldiers asked if he was with IS. Later I saw him on the back of a lorry heading off to a camp.

Yet as this offensive comes to an end, the fight goes on. IS is under attack in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa – where defence sources say up to 8,000 fighters are holed up – and still controls Tal Afar, 50 miles west of Mosul.

And while the final black flags may soon be ripped down, the bitterness among six million Sunnis in Iraq that gave birth to IS after being fuelled by Saddam’s removal remains fertile terrain for extremists.

Victory in Mosul will end the cult’s pretence of statehood. But for all the inevitable jubilation, this war against jihadi militancy has a long way to go. Rehabilitation of liberated areas could cost $100 billion (£78 billion), while the wounds of conflict will fester for years.

As I left the old city, however, I saw a surprising sight: a snooker hall in a decrepit-looking building, filled with children, young men and loud pop music just one mile from the front line and close to another field hospital.

IS banned such games, declaring that the hitting of coloured balls on a green baize table was un-Islamic. Already more than a dozen have reopened, an unlikely sign of normal life resuming. Food shops and schools are also reopening.

The owner Muhammad Hassan, 26, told me he was lashed by IS for operating the place, while his brother was shot for refusing to leave their home. ‘Everything was forbidden by them,’ he said. ‘But now I feel I am flying with happiness.’

 

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