Iraqi Army And ISIS To Battle Over Mosque Where Islamic State Began

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly makes his first public appearance, at a mosque in the center of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014. Social Media Site/Reuters

Iraqi troops advanced Thursday against the remaining forces of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, despite heavy rains in Mosul, with soldiers nearing the city's central mosque—a landmark where the jihadists declared their so-called global caliphate.

As Iraqi federal police and rapid response units continued the drive into western Mosul, ISIS militants escalated their guerilla resistance with sniper fire and suicide car blasts against incoming forces. The operation to oust ISIS from Mosul—its largest and final Iraqi stronghold— was announced in October and has seen a U.S.-backed coalition of Iraqi troops, Kurdish forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias storm Iraq's second city. The campaign successfully retook the eastern half of the city in January and has since fought its way westward toward the iconic Grand Mosque of al-Nuri, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first beckoned all Muslims to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State in July 2014.

"We are holding positions we took yesterday. There is a lot of resistance in that area with snipers and car bombs," Federal Police Major General Haider Dhirgham told Reuters, adding that the recapture of the mosque would be "important for them, it's where they declared their state."

A black jihadist flag hangs from Mosul's Al-Habda minaret at the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri, where Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014, as Iraqi forces battle to drive out ISIS militants from the western part of Mosul, Iraq, March 16, 2017. Reuters

The historic event was the first recorded public appearance of Baghdadi, who in 2010 took the reins of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (and al-Qaeda in Iraq, before that). Before Baghdadi's leadership, the ultraconservative Sunni Muslim group was already known for conducting a violent campaign of sectarian warfare against U.S. troops and the local Shiite Muslim community in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and overthrow of President Saddam Hussein.

Baghdadi expanded the group into neighboring Syria, taking advantage of the country's 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and subsequent civil war. The group became known as ISIS in 2013, incorporating the Levantine region, especially Syria, into its proclaimed territory. The militants climbed the ranks of insurgent groups attempting to overthrow the government, eventually taking much of their territory in rural Syria. In 2014, Baghdadi appeared at the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri, declaring the group would simply be known as the "Islamic State," expanding its militant campaign worldwide.

Since ISIS' rapid rise in Iraq and Syria, the group has lost a considerable amount of its territory to the various domestic and international forces that have taken up arms against it. In Iraq, the coalition has taken back major cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, leaving ISIS to retreat to the northeastern stronghold of Mosul. In Syria, the U.S. and Kurd-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Russia-backed Syrian army and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels have all made significant gains against ISIS' once-expansive sphere of influence in the country. Coalition groups have individually prepared to assault the jihadists' de facto capital of Raqqa but have not yet coordinated an attack plan.