Seizing the 850-year-old Grand al Nuri Mosque hands a symbolic victory to the Iraqi forces. Daesh leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had declared his self-styled caliphate from this mosque three years ago.

Daesh's black flag hangs from Mosul's al Nuri mosque, where the group's leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared caliphate in 2014. The famed leaning minaret has since been blown up by Daesh. (File photo)
Daesh's black flag hangs from Mosul's al Nuri mosque, where the group's leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared caliphate in 2014. The famed leaning minaret has since been blown up by Daesh. (File photo) (TRT World and Agencies)

After eight months of grinding urban warfare, Iraqi troops on Thursday captured the ruined mosque at the heart of Daesh's de facto capital Mosul, and the prime minister declared the group's self-styled "caliphate" at an end.

Iraqi authorities expect the long battle for Mosul to end in coming days with the fight against Daesh now centred around just a handful of neighbourhoods of the Old City.

For the Iraqi forces fighting to recapture Mosul, the seizure of the nearly 850-year-old Grand Al Nuri Mosque, from where Daesh proclaimed their "caliphate" three years ago, is a huge symbolic victory.

TRT World's Soraya Lennie has been following the story from Erbil, Iraq.

"The return of Al Nuri Mosque and Al Hadba minaret to the fold of the nation marks the end of the Daesh state of falsehood," Prime Minister Haider al Abadi said in a statement.

The insurgents blew up the mediaeval mosque and its famed leaning minaret a week ago as US-backed Iraqi forces started a push in its direction.

"Counter-Terrorism Service forces control the Nuri mosque and Al Hadba [the minaret]," the Joint Operations Command said in a statement.

Daesh's black flag had been flying from Al Hadba (The Hunchback) minaret since June 2014.

Battle nearing end

The fall of Mosul would in effect mark the end of the Iraqi half of Daesh's "caliphate," although the hardline group still controls territory west and south of the city.

Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) troops captured the Al Nuri Mosque's ground in a "lightning operation" on Thursday, a commander of the US-trained elite units told state TV.

CTS units are now in control of the mosque area and the Al Hadba and Sirjkhana neighborhoods and they are still advancing, a military statement said.

Other government units, from the army and police, were closing in from other directions.

A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support to the Iraqi forces fighting through the Old City's maze of narrow alleyways.

But the advance remains arduous as Daesh is dug in the middle of civilians, using mortar fire, snipers, booby traps and suicide bombers to defend their last redoubt.

The military estimated up to 350 militants were still in the Old City last week but many have been killed since.

They are besieged in one sq km (0.4 square mile) making up less than 40 percent of the Old City and less than one percent of the total area of Mosul, the largest urban centre over which they held sway in both Iraq and Syria.

Human cost

The cost of the fighting has been enormous. In addition to military casualties, thousands of civilians are estimated to have been killed.

About 900,000 people, nearly half the pre-war population of the northern city, have fled, mostly taking refuge in camps or with relatives and friends, according to aid groups.

Those trapped in the city suffered hunger and deprivation as well as death or injury, and many buildings have been ruined.

Those residents who have escaped the Old City say many of the civilians trapped behind Daesh lines, put last week at 50,000 by the Iraqi military, are in a desperate situation with little food, water or medicines.

An elite Interior Ministry unit said it freed about 20 children believed to belong to Yazidi and other minorities persecuted by the militants in a quarter north of the Old City which houses Mosul's main hospitals.

"Boys and girls who have managed to escape show signs of moderate malnutrition and carry psychosocial scars," the United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF said in a statement.

Thousands of children remain at risk in Mosul, it said.

"The Hunchback"

Daesh leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, appeared during Friday prayers at the Nuri mosque in 2014, soon after the group seized Iraq's second city, calling on Muslims to obey him.

Three years later, Baghdadi's fate and whereabouts remain unknown, and Daesh has lost much of the territory it overran in 2014.

The militants blew up the mosque and minaret on June 21 as they put up increasingly desperate resistance to the advance of Iraqi forces.

Officials from Iraq and the US-led anti-Daesh coalition said the destruction of the site was a sign of the group's imminent loss of Mosul, with Prime Minister al Abadi calling it an "official declaration of defeat."

TRT World 's Ammar Karim has more on the recapture of the mosque from Baghdad.

The loss of the iconic 12th century minaret, one of the country's most recognisable monuments sometimes referred to as Iraq's Tower of Pisa, left the country in shock.

But the destruction had been widely anticipated, with commanders saying Daesh would not have allowed Iraqi forces to score a hugely symbolic victory by recapturing the site.

Daesh claimed on its Amaq propaganda agency that the site was hit in a US air strike, but the US-led coalition said it was the militants who had "destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq's great treasures".

Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria, according to US and Iraqi military sources.

Russia has said it is seeking to verify whether the Daesh leader, whose exact whereabouts have been unknown for months, was killed when its warplanes hit the group's leaders in a night air raid in Syria last month.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies