Iraq is declaring victory over Isis in Mosul as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, wearing black military uniform, arrived in the city to congratulate his soldiers at the end of an epic nine-month-long battle.
Elite Iraqi government forces raised the country’s flag on the banks of the Tigris River this morning, though Isis snipers are still shooting from the last buildings they hold in the Old City.
The magnitude of the victory won by the Iraqi government and its armed forces, three years after they suffered a catastrophic defeat in Mosul, is not in doubt.
A few thousand lightly equipped Isis fighters astonished the world by routing in four days an Iraqi garrison of at least 20,000 men equipped with tanks and helicopters. The recapture of Mosul now is revenge for the earlier humiliation.
The devastation in the city is huge: the closer one gets to the fighting in the centre, the greater the signs of destruction from air strikes. Wherever Isis made a stand, Iraqi forces called in the US-led coalition to use its massive firepower to turn whole blocks into heaps of rubble and smashed masonry.
A volunteer medical worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said that on bad days “some 200 to 300 people with injuries had turned at my medical centre. I hear stories of many families dying, trapped in basements where they had been sheltering from the bombs.”
Isis gunmen have slaughtered civilians trying to escape from areas they held.
Jasim, 33, a driver living behind Isis lines in the Old City, died when an Isis sniper shot him in the back as he tried to cross the Tigris over a half-destroyed bridge.
Two months ago, he was in touch with The Independent by phone after he had been wounded in the leg by a coalition drone attack.
“After a while, I felt a severe pain on my leg, and after few moments I realised I was injured,” he said. “I partly walked and partly crawled to a small temporary clinic nearby, but they could not treat my leg properly.”
Abdulkareem, 43, a construction worker and resident of the al-Maydan district, where Isis is making its last stand, spoke to The Independent last week about the dangers facing him and his family.
“We can hear the roar of the bombing and the mortar fire,” he said. “But we don’t know whether it is the Iraqi army, the coalition air strikes or Daesh [Isis].”
A few days later, an air strike hit his house. Friends said he was badly injured.
Away from the present battle zone in Mosul, many districts are deserted and only passable because bulldozers have cut a path through the debris.
In a side street in the al-Thawra district, where some buildings were destroyed, a crowd of people, mostly women in black robes which covered their faces as well their bodies, were this weekend frantically trying to obtain food baskets donated by an Iraqi charity.
“These women are from Daesh families, so I don’t have much sympathy for them,” said Saad Amr, a volunteer worker from Mosul who had once been jailed by Isis for six months in 2014.
“I suffered every torture aside from rape,” he recalled, adding that men from Isis families had been taken to Baghdad for investigation, but evidence of their crimes is difficult to obtain so most would be freed. The prospect made him edgy.
Asked about popular attitudes in Mosul towards Isis, Saad, who works part-time for an Iraqi radio station, said that three years ago in June 2014, when Isis captured Mosul, “some 85 per cent of people supported them because the Iraqi government forces had mistreated us so badly. The figure later fell to 50 per cent because of Isis atrocities and is now about 15 per cent.”
Ahmed, Saad’s brother who lives in East Mosul, said later that he was nervous because so many former Isis militants were walking about the city after shaving off their beards.
In a medical facility in a converted shop in al-Thawra, a wounded Isis fighter who had been hit in the face by shrapnel from a mortar round, was lying in a bed attached to a drip feed.
“You cannot talk to him because he is still under investigation,” warned a uniformed guard. A further 30 Isis suspects were being held in a mosque nearby, though these are more likely to have been administrative staff rather than fighters.
Saad said that the behaviour of Iraqi combat troops, particularly the Counter-Terrorism Service, also known as the Golden Division, towards civilians was excellent and “the soldiers often give their rations to hungry people”. He was more dubious about how incoming Iraqi army troops and police would act towards local people.
The Iraqi government victory is very real, but it also has its limitations. The weakness of the Iraqi forces is that they depend on three elite units, notably the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), the Emergency Response Division and the Federal Police, backed up by the devastating air power of the US-led coalition.
The CTS combat units, perhaps less than 3,000 men, have been the cutting edge of the military offensive in Mosul and have suffered some 40 per cent casualties.
This shortage of effective military units may make it difficult for Baghdad to consolidate its victory. This became clear during our five-hour drive to Mosul from the Kurdish capital of Irbil 60 miles away to the east, as we tried to find a road where the innumerable checkpoints would let us get through.
Driving across the Nineveh Plan east of Mosul, a land of ruined and abandoned towns and villages, most of the checkpoints were manned by Hashd al-Shaabi, the Shia group much feared by the Sunni Arabs of Mosul.
We crossed the Tigris by a pontoon bridge near Hamam al-Alil. Here there are camps for some 100,000 displaced people from Mosul. A few days earlier some 160 Isis fighters had staged a surprise counter-attack in Qayara district, killing soldiers and police along with two Iraqi journalists.
Travelling north towards Mosul, the police posts would not at first permit us to pass, so we circled round the city to the west travelling on a winding track through rocky scrubland where there were a few impoverished hamlets in which the houses were little more than huts and from which their inhabitants had fled.
For half a dozen miles not far from Mosul, there were no Iraqi security forces and we became nervous that US planes or drones might mistake our two vehicles for an Isis suicide bombing mission and attack us. We turned back to the main road and finally persuaded a police post to let us to use the road running past Mosul airport and a row of bombed out factories.
Our journey showed that the Iraqi government may have the won the nine-month struggle for Mosul – the battle of Stalingrad was only five and a half months long – but the war is not quite over. Isis may be able to regroup as it did before in 2007-11. Out in the vast desolate deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria, its fighters can still hide and plan their revenge.