MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi troops were clearing up a key neighborhood in Mosul on Friday, commanders said, a day after making significant gains against Islamic State militants in the city and after the country’s prime minister declared an end to the extremist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi and Lt. Col. Salam Hussein told The Associated Press that their forces were moving into territory previously held by IS in the Old City after capturing the hugely symbolic al-Nuri Mosque on Thursday, following a dawn push into the Mosul neighborhood.
Al-Saadi said his forces were also continuing to push forward from the Old City and on Friday reached within 700 meters (766 yards) of the Tigris River, which divides Mosul roughly into an eastern and western half.
The mosque and its famed 12th century minaret were blown up by IS last week — an indication, the Iraqi government said, of the militants’ imminent loss of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
Later Thursday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the full liberation of the city is near and that Iraq’s “brave forces will bring victory.”
The operation to retake Mosul, closely backed by the U.S.-led coalition, was launched in October, with the Iraqi government initially pledging the city would be liberated in 2016.
But instead, it has been a long and deadly fight — eight months on, IS holds less than two square kilometers (0.8 square miles) of the city. Clashes have displaced more than 850,000 people, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The Old City, with its tightly packed houses and narrow alleys, has seen some of the most difficult urban combat. Damaged and destroyed houses dot the areas retaken by Iraqi forces and the stench of rotting bodies rises from beneath collapsed buildings.
While the Islamic State group has not confirmed any Mosul losses, its media arm, the Aamaq news agency, carried reports of fierce fighting Friday on the city’s outskirts and in the neighborhoods of Bab Jadid, al-Mashahda and Bab al-Beidh, claiming IS fighters killed more than 50 Iraqi soldiers there.
Though IS claims are often exaggerated, the fact that the reports made no mention of the Old City was significant and could be interpreted as indirect confirmation of losses there.
Another IS media outlet, the weekly al-Nabaa, on Thursday cited an unnamed commander of the militants as saying that the battle for Mosul is a fight “either to achieve victory or die as a martyr.”
Some 300 IS fighters are thought to remain holed up inside the last Mosul districts, along with an estimated 50,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted on Friday his congratulations to the city’s residents and all the Iraqi people on the “breeze of freedom in Mosul after three years of occupation, violence and killing.”
The al-Nuri Mosque, taken Thursday, was a symbolic win — the site is where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in July 2014, declaring the self-styled Islamic “caliphate” encompassing territories then-held by IS in Syria and Iraq.
But IS destroyed the mosque and its iconic leaning minaret last week, Iraqi and coalition officials said. IS blamed a U.S. airstrike for the blasts, a claim rejected by a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition who said coalition planes “did not conduct strikes in that area at that time.”
Al-Baghdadi’s fate remains unknown. Earlier this month, Moscow announced that he may have been killed in a Russian airstrike in late May on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, which is being encircled by an array of anti-IS forces. Russian officials stressed, however, that the information was still “being verified through various channels.”
On Thursday, Iranian official Ali Shirazi, a representative of the country’s supreme leader in the powerful Revolutionary Guard, also suggested that al-Baghdadi had been killed, the official IRNA news agency reported. He did not elaborate. Like Russia, Iran is also a staunch allies of Syrian president Bashar Assad.
The civilians who managed to escape Mosul on Thursday fled on foot, in waves. Soldiers shouted at men to lift their shirts to show they were not wearing explosives and rummaged through the few possessions people carried with them: identify papers, family photos, baby formula, diapers and clothing.
Nearly 1,000 civilians fled the Old City on Thursday, according to Col. Ali al-Kenani, an Iraqi intelligence officer at a west Mosul screening center. Families covered in dust huddled in the shade of half-destroyed storefronts waiting for flat-bed trucks to move them to camps.
Associated Press Writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.