Sporadic clashes continued on Tuesday in Mosul, even after Iraq’s prime minister declared a “total victory” over the Islamic State group in the city and at least one airstrike hit the Old City neighborhood that was the scene of the fierce battle’s final days.
A plume of smoke rose into the air from the strike. IS mortar shells landed near Iraqi positions and heavy gunfire could be heard on the western edge of the Old City.
The developments underscore the dangers still posed by the militants after Iraqi forces announced they retook full control of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, three years after it was seized by extremists bent on building a global caliphate.
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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 the Islamic State group 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 IS elsewhere in Iraq and tens of thousands of Iraqi troops went through a massive coalition training program.
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The IS 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 neighborhoods in ruins and displaced nearly 900,000 from their homes.
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 IS 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.
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“The soldiers of the caliphate in Mosul continue to accomplish epics until they achieve either victory or martyrdom,” it said.
“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. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group, also referred to as ISIL and Daesh, an Arabic name.
“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.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.