Iraqi forces fought to eliminate the last pockets of ISIS resistance in western Mosul on Monday after the premier visited the devastated city to congratulate troops on securing victory.
With the jihadists surrounded in a sliver of territory in Mosul's Old City, attention was turning to the huge task of rebuilding the city and of helping civilians, with aid groups warning that Iraq's humanitarian crisis was far from over.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Mosul on Sunday and hailed Iraq's "heroic fighting forces" after months of difficult battles that have left much of the city in ruins.
The Old City in particular has been devastated, with many buildings reduced to little more than concrete shells and rubble littering the streets. Soldiers armed with machineguns and sniper rifles fired from atop ruined structures in the Old City on Monday, and air strikes sent plumes of smoke rising over Mosul's historic center.
A senior commander said on Monday that Iraqi forces were engaged in "heavy" fighting with the remnants of jihadist forces, but that the battle was near its end.
Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi of Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service said the jihadists had been reduced to an area of the Old City of about 200 by 100 meters.
"They do not accept to surrender," Aridhi told AFP.
But "operations are in their final stages," and "it is likely that (the fighting) will end today," Aridhi said.
New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi said the Old City is a ghost town, with no residents in sight.
"They're either still trapped inside their homes, or — I'm sorry to bring up this ghastly image — but I think a lot of them are still under the rubble," she says. "You can smell the dead bodies wherever you go."
Aridhi said his forces had information that there were between 3,000 and 4,000 civilians in the area but that could not be independently confirmed.
Backed by the US-led coalition battling ISIS, Iraqi forces launched their campaign in October to retake Mosul, which was seized by the jihadists during the mid-2014 offensive that saw them take control of large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Army, police and special forces, backed by waves of US-led air strikes, seized the eastern side of the city in January and launched the battle for its western part the next month.The fight grew tougher when security forces entered the densely populated Old City on the western bank of the Tigris River, which divides the city, and intense street-to-street fighting followed.
The cost of victory has been enormous: Much of Mosul is in ruins, thousands dead and wounded and nearly half the city's population forced from their homes.
"This is now a tale of two cities." said Callimachi. "Eastern Mosul, I think, is already in a way back to normal life — shops are open, you can drive down the street and see vegetable sellers and so on."
But in western Mosul, it's a different story. "I don't know that [the Old City] will ever be rebuilt. It just looks like a jumble of masonry, and rubble, and coils of rebar," she said.
The United Nations has said 920,000 people fled their homes during the Mosul operation, and while some have returned the vast majority remain displaced. "It's a relief to know that the military campaign in Mosul is ending. The fighting may be over, but the humanitarian crisis is not," Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said in a statement.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on Monday said it could be many months before civilians are able to return to their homes. "It is likely that thousands of people may have to remain in displacement for months to come," UNHCR said in a statement.
'Nothing to go back to'
"Many have nothing to go back to due to extensive damage caused during the conflict, while key basic services such as water, electricity and other key infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, will need to be rebuilt or repaired," it said.
Twenty-eight aid groups working in Iraq issued a statement calling for international support for rebuilding efforts and urged authorities not to press civilians to return.
"Remaining insecurity; lack of basic services; explosive hazards contamination; and damage to homes, businesses and public infrastructure — including schools and hospitals — all continue to pose barriers to return," said the statement signed by groups including the Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam and Save the Children.
"I think the mood, in general, is melancholy," said Callimachi. "This liberation has come at an enormous cost to the city."
It also raised concerns for Iraqis still in areas under ISIS control, including the towns of Tal Afar and Hawijah in the north, as well as territory in western Anbar province.
"For the expected offensives in Hawijah, Tal Afar and western Anbar, where approximately 150,000 civilians are thought to still be trapped, it is vital that lessons are learnt from pass offensives," the aid groups said, calling for access to safety and assistance to be prioritized.
France, Britain and the European Union congratulated Iraqi forces on Sunday, with the EU hailing "a decisive step in the campaign to eliminate terrorist control in parts of Iraq."
Iran, a key ally of Abadi's Shiite-led government, gave its congratulations too and offered help in rebuilding.
India meanwhile announced Monday that it would send a top minister to Iraq in an effort to locate 39 missing Indian laborers believed to have been kidnapped by IS in 2014.
IS has lost most of the territory it once controlled, and the coalition is also aiming to oust the jihadists from their Syrian stronghold Raqqa, which is under assault by US-backed Arab and Kurdish forces.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.
From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI