U.S.-Backed Forces Look To Finish Islamic State In Mosul, Raqqa
Hundreds of civilians fled Mosul's Old City on June 30 as Iraqi government forces slowly advanced against the last pockets of Islamic State (IS) resistance.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned that the "intense and concentrated" fighting in Mosul is putting innocent lives in even greater danger.
Correspondents report seeing civilians climbing over mounds of rubble and running through narrow alleys in the midst of heavy gunfire and explosions nearby.
The neighborhoods where government forces are fighting have been under siege for months as grueling urban warfare drew out the operation to retake Iraq's second-largest city.
The IS extremists on June 30 were also cut off and encircled in Raqqa, their self-declared capital in neighboring Syria.
But Iraqi military officials and human rights monitoring groups are predicting more bloody fighting in the days ahead before final victory is declared in either Mosul or Raqqa.
The liberation of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria would represent a major blow to the IS militants, who captured large swaths of territory in 2014 in brutal fighting against Syrian and Iraqi government forces, declaring an Islamic "caliphate" over areas they controlled.
Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a senior commander in the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, said on June 30 that "final victory" would be declared "in the next few days" over the remaining 200 to 300 IS extremists in Mosul, most of them foreign fighters with no place left to go.
On June 29, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared an end to IS's self-declared "caliphate."
Abadi on June 30 thanked Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, for his role in the war against IS, crediting him with having "saved Iraq and paved the way for victory."
In 2014, the influential Sistani called on Iraqis to volunteer for the fight against the mainly Sunni IS extremists, a step that helped stop their sweeping advances at the time.
Abadi's comments came three years after the caliphate was proclaimed by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on June 29, 2014, at Mosul's landmark Grand Al-Nuri Mosque, which the militants have since destroyed.
A senior Russian diplomat on June 22 said Baghdadi had likely been killed in a recent Russian air strike, a comment later echoed by an Iranian official, although the claim has not been confirmed.
The battle for Mosul was launched on October 17, with Iraqi forces first taking the eastern side of the city before launching the campaign in the west.
With U.S. and coalition air support, Iraqi troops have steadily advanced, albeit with heavy casualties, and have pressed IS fighters into a few streets in the Old City on the western side of the city.
A more-complicated situation exists in Syria, where U.S.-backed fighters are engaged in a six-year civil war against the government of President Bashar al-Assad and simultaneously battling IS extremists.
Russia and Iran back Assad, while the United States and Turkey support differing rebel groups.
Around Raqqa, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) -- made up of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters -- have closed off the IS fighters' last escape route out of the city.
"The SDF has been able to completely encircle Raqqa," said Rami Abdel Rahman, chief of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
SDF fighters entered Raqqa on June 6 after encircling the city and taking nearby villages in a months-long campaign.
Officials say the final push could be even deadlier than the drive against Mosul, with an estimated 2,500 IS fighters in Raqqa holding tens of thousands of civilians and often using them as human shields.
The so-called Islamic State has been blamed for multiple atrocities in Syria and Iraq, and followers have claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks elsewhere, including high-profile attacks in Europe.
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