Mosul celebrates first Eid without Islamic State since 2014
People in the Iraqi city of Mosul celebrated their first Muslim Eid holiday without the Islamic State (IS) group in years on Sunday, after the militants had been ejected from most of the city.
Children gathered in squares on the eastern side of the city. Some played on old swings and others with toy guns and rifles, which were among the only toys allowed by IS militants after they took over the city in June 2014.
The militants implemented an extreme version of Islam that associated toys with a face, including dolls, with idolatry. They encouraged youngsters to train on weapons and changed textbooks to reflect their military ideology. Children were asked to add up bombs or bullets in maths exercises.
Eid prayers were allowed under IS rule, but festivities were not.
Still, for many, Sunday's Eid celebrations were overshadowed by the destruction of their historic leaning minaret, blown up by the militants on 21 June, and fears for thousands of civilians trapped in the Old City in western Mosul still under IS control.
"It won't be real Eid until we return home," said a man in his sixties, displaced from the western side of the city, across the Tigris River, where fighting continues.
Some expressed sadness over the destruction of the 850-year-old Grand al-Nuri mosque and its leaning 45-metre minaret.
"Eid is not the same," said a man who declined to give his name as fear is still present even though Iraqi forces dislodged the rebels from the eastern part of the city months ago.
Iraqi forces took the eastern side from IS in January, after 100 days of fighting, and started attacking the western side in February. The militants are now besieged in Mosul's Old City.
"As our heroic forces are closer to declaring final victory over the Daesh (IS) gangs, I offer my most sincere congratulations for Eid al-Fitr," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement.
Battle nearing end
A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support in the eight-month-old offensive to drive the militants from their de facto capital in Iraq.
About 350 militants, most of them non-Iraqis, are defending their remaining stronghold in Mosul's densely populated Old City, an Iraqi general said on Sunday. He expects the battle for the city to end in days, he said.
"Most of the dead bodies are foreigners, most of the fighters are foreigners, we see some trying to escape across the Tigris," said Major-General Sami al-Arithi, a Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) commander.
The US-trained urban warfare units are leading the fight in the narrow alleyways of the historic district that lies by the western bank of the Tigris.
On Sunday, the Joint Operations Command coordinating the battle said some IS militants "tried to infiltrate into the al-Tanak" neighbourhood in west Mosul.
CTS forces surrounded the area, backed by the army and the air force, and "killed many of the IS fighters," a statement said, adding "the situation is now under control".
More than 50,000 civilians, about half the Old City's population, remain behind IS lines, complicating the troops' advance, Arithi told state TV.
The civilians are trapped in crumbling old houses in harrowing conditions, with little food, water or medicines, according to those who have escaped.
Aid organisations say IS has stopped many from leaving, using them as human shields. Hundreds of civilians fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past three weeks.
Iraqi authorities were hoping to declare victory in the northern city by Eid, the three-day festival that started on Sunday for Mosul's Sunni Muslim population and many Iraqi Shias, celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Arithi said the CTS were about 25 metres from the Nuri mosque, from where IS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his "caliphate" over parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago.
The Iraqi government once hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the fighting has dragged on as the militants reinforced positions in civilian areas, launched suicide car bomb attacks, laid traps and kept up sniper and mortar fire.
The fall of Mosul would mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate". Still, IS remains in control of large areas of both Iraq and Syria.
Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and has been assumed to be hiding in the Iraqi-Syrian border area. There has been no confirmation of Russian reports over the past week that he was killed.