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Sandro Rosell
FC Barcelona President
Monday, September 25, 2017

President Donald Trump on Monday congratulated Iraq, its prime minister, and security forces for liberating the city of Mosul from Islamic State.

In a White House statement, Trump said defeating the militant group in Mosul "signals that its days in Iraq and Syria are numbered." He further pledged to "continue to seek the total destruction of ISIS," using an acronym for Islamic State.

Trump said the United States grieves for the thousands of Iraqis who suffered and died at the hands of Islamic State along with the "loss of the heroic soldiers and Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) who gave their lives."

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formally declared victory on Monday in the city that the militant group had declared the capital of its caliphate in Iraq.

Speaking from Mosul's Old City in a speech carried on state television, Abadi said the win is a victory over oppression, brutality and terrorism.

"I declare in Mosul, from Mosul, to all people the...failure and collapse of the terrorist Islamic State," he said.

Abadi said Iraq still faces challenges, including destroying Islamic State terror cells that still exist in the country and creating stability for the entire nation.

The U.S. military welcomed Abadi's statement but said there are still areas of the Old City of Mosul that must be cleared of explosives and possible ISIS fighters in hiding.

Hours before Abadi's speech, witnesses reported heavy fighting still underway in parts of Mosul.

The commanding U.S. general of the coalition operation in Mosul, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said, "This victory alone does not eliminate ISIS and there is still a tough fight ahead. But the loss of one of its twin capitals and a jewel of their so-called caliphate is a decisive blow."

Islamic State still controls some territory outside Mosul as well as much bigger areas in neighboring Syria.

Will it ever feel safe again?

Thousands of civilians have been killed in this battle and 900,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. Vast swaths of Mosul and the surrounding towns and villages have been abandoned, and many people say they will never feel safe going home.

And while no part of Mosul is as thoroughly destroyed as the Old City, neither has any part been left untouched by nearly three years of Islamic State rule and almost nine months of all-out war.

Human rights group Amnesty International released a report Tuesday detailing the loss of civilian life in the battle for Mosul, documenting at least 400 civilian deaths just in West Mosul between January and mid-May.

"The scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives during the military operation to retake Mosul must immediately be publicly acknowledged at the highest levels of government in Iraq and states that are part of the US-led coalition," Lynn Maalouf, Director of Research for the Middle East at Amnesty International, said.

In parts of East Mosul, recaptured by Iraqi forces in January, recovery is more promising. Shoppers crowd the streets, some of which are newly paved, mostly picking through wreckage left by airstrikes. The government has restored electricity and water supplies in much of the city.

Washington Institute for Near East Policy Distinguished Fellow and former Ambassador James Jeffrey told VOA that relief and recovery efforts are only the first step after the recapture of Mosul.

"The second step is of course political, as always in Iraq," Jeffrey said. "How are you going to prevent a return of ISIS or something like it, and how are you going to incorporate the Sunni Arabs into the larger Iraq and keep the Kurds, who are in it but quite separate, playing a positive role. Those are the big issues we have been dealing with since 2003."

On Tuesday, it was reported that Islamic State has captured most of a village south of Mosul despite losing control of its stronghold in the city, an Iraqi army officer and residents said, deploying guerrilla-style tactics as its self-proclaimed caliphate crumbles.

The militants, armed with machine guns and mortars, have now seized more than 75 percent of Imam Gharbi, a village on the western bank of the Tigris River some 70 km (44 miles) south of Mosul, and reinforcements are expected, the Iraqi army officer said.

Islamic State launched its attack on Imam Gharbi last week, in the kind of strike it is expected to deploy now as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces regain control over cities the group captured during its shock 2014 offensive.

Mosul resident Hind Mahmoud said by telephone that she had heard exchanges of gunfire in the Old City and seen an Iraqi army helicopter firing on Islamic State militants on Tuesday.

Stripped of Mosul, Islamic State's dominion in Iraq will be reduced to mainly rural, desert areas west and south of the city.

Islamic State also faces pressure in its operational base in the Syrian city of Raqqa, where U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces have seized territory on three sides of the city.

The campaign to retake Mosul from the militants was launched last October by a 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi government units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shi'ite militias, with a U.S.-led coalition providing key air and ground support.

Abadi's government in Iraq now faces a difficult task managing the sectarian tensions which enabled Islamic State to gain supporters in the country among fellow Sunnis, who say they were marginalized by the Shi'ite-led government.

The U.S.-led coalition warned that victory in Mosul did not mark the end of the group's global threat.

"Now it is time for all Iraqis to unite to ensure ISIS [Islamic State] is defeated across the rest of Iraq and that the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq are not allowed to return again," Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townsend said in a statement.

Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Dead?

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters on Tuesday that it had "confirmed information" that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed.

"(We have) confirmed information from leaders, including one of the first rank who is Syrian, in the Islamic State in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor," said Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the British-based war monitoring group.

Russia's Defense Ministry said in June that it might have killed Baghdadi when one of its air strikes hit a gathering of Islamic State commanders on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa. But Washington said it could not corroborate the death and Western and Iraqi officials have been skeptical.

Reuters could not independently verify Baghdadi's death.

Also on Tuesday it was reported that Pentagon officials say they have no information to confirm reports that al-Baghdadi is dead.

"We cannot confirm this report, but hope it is true," said the U.S.-led coalition in an emailed statement. "We strongly advise ISIS to implement a strong line of succession, it will be needed."

Baghdadi, 46, has not been since in public in 2014, when he appeared at Mosul's al-Nuri mosque to declare an Islamic “caliphate” on lands IS controlled in Iraq and Syria. He has been falsely reported killed or wounded several times since becoming prominent three years ago.

Battle for Raqqa

Kurdish-led fighters made further advances Tuesday in the fight to oust the Islamic State terror group from its de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria. They have been consolidating their foothold in the old city, while amassing soldiers in the eastern suburbs, ready for a deeper strike, say commanders with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

The military advances appear not to have dispelled local Arab anxiety, however, about the Kurds’ long-term intentions for Raqqa and its outlying villages.

Although eager for the jihadists to leave, Raqqa’s Arabs remain wary of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, worrying the Kurds have territorial ambitions for the Arab-majority city.

That concern has mounted following the expulsion this week of an Arab militia from the SDF for retreating in the face of Islamic State fire. Claims of abusive treatment of local young Arabs at the hands of the advancing U.S.-backed forces also are adding to sectarian tension.

On June 30, a video surfaced in the Turkish media of two soldiers wearing YPG uniforms kicking two local Arab men and stomping on them while screaming at them to disclose the location of IS fighters. In the video, the detainees from a village west of Raqqa insist they don’t know the whereabouts of IS extremists.

The YPG soldiers who were filmed were, in fact, Arabs but this has not served to tamp down local anger over the ugly incident. YPG leaders have acknowledged to local media the authenticity of the video. They have denounced the abuse “in the strongest terms,” describing it as “absolutely unacceptable.”

In a statement, the YPG added, “Since they have broken laws and international norms, they will be held accountable for their irresponsible, individual acts.”

Local Arab suspicions of the Kurds, according to some accounts, haven’t been diminished by the participation of Sunni Arab militias in the assault on Raqqa — an engagement initially insisted on by Washington, though one that has seen Arab militias from the rebel Free Syrian Army seeking battlefield roles.

Long-term stability at stake

Analysts say that providing stability for Raqqa and avoiding rights abuses following the expulsion of the Sunni militants from the city will be crucial in determining the future chances of IS being able to mount a prolonged insurgency in northern Syria. They have warned for months that if the Kurdish-led SDF fails to oversee the city and its outlying villages evenhandedly and within traditional Arab and tribal power structures, the odds of future sectarian conflict will increase, providing an opening for the jihadists.

“The resulting deficit of trust between the Kurds and Arabs in some areas could be a fault line that jihadis exploit to try to return to liberated areas,” cautions Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington-based think tank, and co-author of the book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

Trust has been in short supply between Arabs and Kurds in northern Syria since even before the start of the uprising six years ago against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the 1970s, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, displaced tens of thousands of Kurds in the province of Raqqa in order to resettle Arab families. Raqqa’s Arabs fear the Kurds now may seize the opportunity to even the score and engineer a Kurdish expansion, which would result in an upending of current demographics.

IS propaganda, as well as YPG expulsions of Arabs from some villages last year captured by Kurds in northern and eastern Syria, haven’t helped to dispel Arab anxiety — nor do incidents of SDF abuse of detainees.

Raqqa locals allege the anti-Islamic State forces are all too ready to suspect people who continued to live in Raqqa under IS rule of being jihadists or fellow travelers. Relatives of local IS fighters also are quickly viewed as having been complicit with the jihadists, they say.

Activists with a network called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported Monday that SDF units have been mounting arrest raids and detaining young men from villages in the Raqqa countryside.

By: Walter Metuth