Iraqi forces clashed with Islamic State fighters holding out in Mosul’s Old City on Wednesday, more than 36 hours after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the militants in the de facto Iraqi capital of their self-declared caliphate.
Abadi’s announcement marked the biggest defeat for the hardline Sunni group since its lightning sweep through northern Iraq three years ago, but pockets of Mosul remain insecure and the city has been heavily damaged by nearly nine months of gruelling urban combat.
About 900,000 people have fled the fighting, with more than a third in camps outside the city and the rest living with family and friends in other neighbourhoods. Activity has quickly returned to much of Mosul and work to repair damaged homes and infrastructure is already underway.
But Iraqi forces exchanged gunfire with the militants in their final redoubt just before midnight and into the morning, two residents living just across the Tigris River from the area told Reuters.
Army helicopters strafed the Old City and blasts sent plumes of smoke into the air, though it was unclear if they were controlled explosions or bombs set off by Islamic State, the residents said by phone.
“We still live in an atmosphere of war despite the victory announcement two days ago,” said Fahd Ghanim, 45.
An Iraqi military official attributed the activity to “clearing operations”.
“There are Daesh (fighters) hiding in different places,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “They disappear here and pop up there then we target them.”
He declined to estimate the number of militants or civilians in the area, but the top U.S. general in Iraq said on Tuesday that as many as a couple of hundred fighters could still be in Mosul.
“There are bypassed holdouts. We haven’t cleared every building in this city the size of Philadelphia. That’s going to have to be done, and there are also hidden IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend told reporters.
“There are still going to be losses from the Iraqi security forces as they continue to secure Mosul.”
South of the city, reinforcements arrived to help Iraqi forces push out Islamic State militants armed with machine guns and mortars from Imam Gharbi village. The militants have taken control of 75 percent of the village.
The militants’ assault on Imam Gharbi, launched last week, is the kind of strike Islamic State is expected to deploy now as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces regain control over cities the group captured during its shock 2014 offensive.
A separate attack on a border guard convoy in western Anbar, near the Syrian border, killed two soldiers and wounded four on Tuesday, military sources said.