Mosul - Iraqi forces have entered the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself leader of Islamic State three years ago. The full seizure of the compound, which Iraqi troops were moving through, now appears imminent and would mark a highly symbolic moment in the war against Isis.
The development means that government troops are now in the heart of the Old City – Isis’s last redoubt in Mosul – and probably within a fortnight of recapturing its entirety. The Iraqi prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, proclaimed the advance towards the mosque as “the end of the Isis state”.
Iraqi government forces however still remain outside several key Isis-held Old City districts, which had been earmarked ahead of the assault as the most difficult to capture.
Baghdadi declared a caliphate from the mosque, proclaiming himself its leader three years ago to the day – 29 June 2014 – when Isis was at the height of its power. The terror group had by then overrun much of northern Iraq and Syria, dismembering state control in both countries and establishing an ultraconservative brand of Islamic law over the lands and people that it conquered.
Isis is under pressure in both countries – in the Syrian city of Raqqa, US-backed Kurdish forces seeking to take it on Thursday claimed to have sealed off the last route out, intensifying a siege that has seen many of its leaders flee towards southern Syria.
The fight for the terror group’s territory in Mosul has been grinding and savage, with Iraqi troops reporting house-to-house fighting with a battle-hardened enemy that refuses to surrender.
Isis last week toppled the al-Hadba minaret adjoining the mosque, causing extensive damage to the surrounding compound.
Iraqi special forces entered the compound and took control of the surrounding streets on Thursday afternoon, following a dawn push into the area, said Lt Gen Abdul Wahab al-Saadi. The compound has been rigged with an extensive network of explosives, which will delay a final push to seize what is left of it.
The densely packed Old City is thought still to house up to 100 well-armed Isis extremists, as well as tens of thousands of civilians, who have been gradually streaming out of ravaged buildings to safety over the past week. Five Isis militants were killed on Wednesday while trying to swim east across the Tigris river armed with explosives.
After months of fighting, the Isis hold in Mosul has shrunk to less than 0.8 sq miles of territory, but the advances have come at considerable cost. Fierce street battles and widespread use of hidden bombs by the retreating extremists have taken a heavy toll on Iraqi troops, with more than 1,000 members of the Federal Police and military believed to have died in the fight for the city and its surrounds.
“There are hundreds of bodies under the rubble,” said special forces Maj Dhia Thamir, deployed inside the Old City.