Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told his followers on Thursday there could be no retreat in a “total war” against the forces arrayed against them, as advancing soldiers battled the militants inside their northern Iraqi stronghold.
Expressing confidence that his Islamic State fighters would prevail against Shiite Islam, Western “crusaders” and the Sunni “apostate” countries of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Baghdadi called on the jihadists fighting in the city of Mosul to “wreak havoc”.
“This raging battle and total war, and the great jihad that the state of Islam is fighting today only increases our firm belief, God willing, and our conviction that all this is a prelude to victory,” Baghdadi said in an audio recording released online by supporters on Thursday.
Iraqi regular troops and special forces, Shiite militias, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and other groups backed by US-led airstrikes launched a campaign two weeks ago to retake Mosul.
Winning back the city would mark the defeat of the Iraqi half of a cross-border caliphate which Baghdadi declared from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque two years ago. Islamic State also holds large parts of neighboring Syria.
In his first audio message released in nearly a year, Baghdadi called on the population of Mosul’s Nineveh province “not to weaken in the jihad” against the “enemies of God.”
He also called on the group’s suicide fighters to “turn the nights of the unbelievers into days, to wreak havoc in their land and make their blood flow as rivers”.
Those tempted to flee should “know that the value of staying on your land with honor is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame.”
Shortly after Baghdadi’s speech was released at around 2 a.m., residents said heavy explosions shook eastern Mosul. One said the militants fired dozens of rockets toward the Intisar, Quds and Samah districts where soldiers have been closing in.
“We heard the sounds of rockets firing one after the other and saw them flashing through the air. The house was shaking and we were terrified, not knowing what was taking place.”
Fighters were on the street, unusually showing their faces, he said. “They were saying ‘We will fight till death. The caliph gave us a morale boost to fight the infidels’,” he said.
Another witness from the Hadba neighborhood of north Mosul said that Islamic State vehicles patrolled the area and blasted out Baghdadi’s speech, urging fighters to hold their positions.
Outside the city’s eastern limits, hundreds of civilians streamed away from the conflict, packed into cars, pickups and trucks, waving white flags and hooting horns. Cows and sheep also filled the road from Kokjali, on the eastern edge of Mosul.
Many were from Kokjali itself, which was cleared of Islamic State fighters by Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service troops earlier this week.
Fleeing residents said there had been heavy mortar fire launched by retreating Islamic State fighters.
By midmorning, a Reuters correspondent in Kokjali saw smoke rising from inside Mosul but there were no sounds of fighting.
A colonel in the army’s Ninth Armored Division said troops had managed to break through the southeastern perimeter of Mosul on Thursday, toward the Mithaq and Intisar neighborhoods.
Four soldiers were killed when two armored personnel carriers were hit by rocket and mortar fire, he said. “They managed to enter the edge of the neighborhoods, they still haven’t ventured inside due to the heavy resistance encountered,” he said.
The exact location of Baghdadi, an Iraqi whose real name is Ibrahim al-Samarrai, is not clear. Reports have said he may be in Mosul itself, or in Islamic State-held land to the west of the city, close to the border with Syria.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said intelligence suggested that Baghdadi had “vacated the scene”, but he did not say where the Islamic State leader might be.
Mosul still has a population of 1.5 million people, much more than any of the other cities captured by Islamic State two years ago in Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been advancing on Mosul for two weeks from the north, from the eastern Nineveh plains and up the Tigris river from the south.
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter looks over Mosul from his position near Abu Jarboa village, Iraq. Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah
The Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) forces of mainly Shiite militias joined the campaign on Saturday, launching an offensive to cut off any supply or escape to the west.
The leader of the Badr Organization, the largest of the Popular Mobilization militias, said his forces would cut off the main western supply route on Thursday, leaving Islamic State surrounded.
Senior Kurdish politician Hoshiyar Zebari said that Islamic State blew up parts of a bridge over the Tigris linking the two sides of Mosul, to try to prevent fighters abandoning the eastern districts.
“It’s the most important bridge for them because it leads to their headquarters and residential areas (on the western side),” he told Reuters. Residents said there had been two explosion at the bridge, stopping traffic in both directions.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia
In his speech, Baghdadi called for attacks on Turkey and Saudi Arabia, saying the Sunni countries had both sided with the enemy in a war targeting Sunni Islam.
Islamic State fighters should “unleash the fire of their anger” on Turkish troops fighting them in Syria, and take the battle into Turkey.
“Turkey entered the zone of your operations, so attack it, destroy its security, and sow horror within it. Put it on your list of battlefields. Turkey entered the war with the Islamic State with cover and protection from Crusader jets,” he said referring to the US-led air coalition.
Baghdadi also told his followers to launch “attack after attack” in Saudi Arabia, targeting security forces, government officials, members of the ruling Al Saud family and media outlets, for “siding with the infidel nations in the war on Islam and the Sunna (Sunni Muslims) in Iraq and Syria”.
Islamic State has been on the retreat since last year in both Iraq and Syria, in the face of a myriad different forces seeking to crush the hard line group.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the conflict with Islamic State had caused colossal damage to the country, already struggling to cope with low oil prices. He said infrastructure losses alone amounted to US$35 billion.