By Donna Abu-Nasr and Dana Khraiche
Iraqi forces pushed deep into the last remaining urban stronghold controlled by Islamic State in Iraq on Thursday, capturing the compound of a key mosque in Mosul’s Old City where the extremists’ leader three years ago had called on all Muslims to obey him.
Overrunning the site of the Al Nuri Mosque marks “the end of Da’esh’s false state,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said on Twitter, using Islamic State’s Arabic acronym. “We will pursue every last Da’esh fighter in Iraq.”
Though Islamic State blew up the mosque on June 22, reclaiming the area is of both symbolic and strategic importance because it was there that Islamic State’s leader — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — made his first speech as self-proclaimed caliph in 2014. It leaves the group with some pockets of Mosul and areas in western and northeastern Iraq, including Hawija near Kirkuk.
Islamic State is also on the back foot in Syria, where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have advanced into the outskirts of Raqqa, the group’s self-declared capital. On Thursday, the SDF made significant advances on the southern bank of the Euphrates river, laying siege to the city, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is chronicling the Syrian war through activists on the ground. Syrian government forces are also pushing east toward the Islamic State-held area of Deir Ezzor.
The group “cannot stop the progress that Iraqis and Syrians have mounted in the last two years,” U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, said on Twitter. Iraqi “grit, determination and support from the coalition will lead to the imminent liberation of Mosul.”
Russia has said it may have killed Baghdadi during a bombing raid in May, though his death hasn’t been confirmed.
“The Islamic State’s remaining caliphate is likely to break up before the end of the year, reducing its governance project to a string of isolated urban areas that will eventually be retaken over the course of 2018,” said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit, which published a report on Thursday mapping the group’s losses.
Territory controlled by Islamic State spanned an estimated 36,200 square kilometers on June 26, or roughly the size of Belgium. That’s down 40 percent since the start of 2017 and 60 percent since a first estimate in January 2015, according to IHS Markit’s latest analysis.
The territorial losses have battered the group’s wealth. Islamic State’s average monthly revenue fell 80 percent to $16 million in the second quarter of 2017 from $81 million two years earlier, IHS Markit said in the report. Average monthly oil revenue is down 88 percent and income from taxation and confiscation has fallen by 79 percent from initial estimates in 2015, it said.
“Territorial losses are the main factor contributing to the Islamic State’s loss of revenue,” said Ludovico Carlino, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “Losing control of the heavily populated Iraqi city of Mosul, and oil rich areas in the Syrian provinces of Raqqa and Homs, has had a particularly significant impact on the group’s ability to generate revenue.”
As its rule collapses in the Middle East, the group has intensified its campaign of terrorist attacks further afield, the report said.
Islamic State declared a caliphate straddling parts of Syria and Iraq after capturing Raqqa in 2013 and Mosul a year later. Since then, extremists linked to the group have proliferated and murdered hundreds in London, Ankara, Beirut, Brussels and Paris as well as in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
In Syria alone, 4,880 people, including 292 children, have been killed in three years by Islamic State bombings, beheadings, firing squads or stoning, SOHR said Thursday.