MOSUL – Iraq's Prime Minister declared an end to the Islamic State group's (I.S.) caliphate Thursday after Iraqi forces captured the compound of a landmark mosque in Mosul that was blown up last week by the I.S."We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state. The liberation of Mosul proves that," Haider al-Abadi said using the Arabic acronym for I.S. in a statement posted to twitter. "We will not relent, our brave forces will bring victory," he added.
But even as the Iraqi leader issued his statement, heavy clashes continued to unfold in Mosul — filling field hospitals and forcing hundreds to flee.The destroyed al-Nuri mosque retaken by Iraqi special forces Thursday following a dawn push is a hugely symbolic win. The site is where I.S. leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in July 2014, declaring a self-styled Islamic "caliphate," encompassing territories then-held by I.S. in Syria and Iraq.Iraqi and coalition officials said I.S. blew up the mosque complex last week. The Islamic State group has blamed a U.S. airstrike for the destruction, 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."The advances Thursday come as Iraqi troops are pushing deeper into the Old City, a densely populated neighborhood west of the Tigris River where I.S. fighters are making their last stand in Iraq's second-largest city. Clashes were ongoing into the evening Thursday, according to a news agency's reporters on the scene.Last week Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake the Old City's narrow alleyways and dense clusters of homes, embarking on some of the most difficult urban combat in the IS fight to date. I.S. now holds less than 2 square kilometers (0.8 square miles) of territory inside Mosul, but the advances have come at considerable cost.Damaged and destroyed houses dot the route Iraqi forces have carved into the congested district and the stench of rotting bodies rises from beneath mounds of rubble."There are hundreds of bodies under the rubble," said special forces Maj. Dhia Thamir, deployed inside the Old City. He added that all the dead bodies along the special forces' route were of IS fighters.Special forces Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi acknowledged that some civilians have been killed by airstrikes and artillery in the fight for the Old City. "Of course there is collateral damage, it is always this way in war," he said."The houses are very old," he said, referring to the Old City, "so any bombardment causes them to collapse completely."U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters at the Pentagon that victory in Mosul was "imminent" and would likely occur "in days rather than weeks."But, he continued, "the Old City still remains a difficult, dense, suffocating fight — tight alleyways with booby traps, civilians, and [I.S.] fighters around every corner."[caption id="attachment_65014" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Iraqi special forces soldiers during fighting against Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Photo: AP/Felipe Dana[/caption]Some 300 IS fighters remain holed up inside the Old City according to Iraq's special forces along with an estimated 50,000 civilians according to the United Nations.Nearly a thousand civilians fled Mosul's Old City 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."We saw so many bodies stuck under the rubble as we fled," said Muhammed Hamoud who escaped the Old City with his wife and two children Thursday afternoon. "One man was still alive. He yelled for us to help him. We were able to dig him out, but he was so badly injured we had to leave him inside. We couldn't carry him to flee with us."While Iraqi forces have had periods of swift gains during the Mosul operation, combat inside the city has largely been grueling and deadly for both security forces and civilians. Clashes have displaced more than 850,000 people according to the International Organization for Migration.