Iraqi forces have recently liberated the eastern of half Mosul, retaking half of what is the terrorist group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq.
Fighting in the eastern half of the city culminated in mid-January, when Iraqi forces advanced on Mosul University, which is not only internationally known for its academics but is also strategically located in Mosul, with many of its buildings overlooking neighbourhoods along the Tigris River, which bisects the city.
“The university is completely liberated and forces are sweeping the complex for any hiding militants,” CTS spokesman Sabah al-Numan told Reuters at the time. “We’re not stopping.”
When ISIS swept through Iraq in summer 2014, ultimately capturing about one-third of the country’s territory, the onslaught disrupted the typically stable studies of students at the university.
“It had a big impact because even the last time when things were bad we would still study. We would study despite the news,” law student Nadia Elias Ibrahim told the Associated Press in late 2016.
“For us law students at Mosul University, our only dream when we left high school was to go to Mosul University,” Kawkab Salman Kawkab, another law student, told the AP. “It is an esteemed university, known globally and regionally. People speak of it wherever you go.”
The university and its students relocated to the Aland Motel in Dohuk, Iraq, a city north of Mosul, which became one of the university’s many makeshift campuses.
“We were honored we got to go to” Mosul University, Kawkab said. “But because of what has happened now, we are just waiting for the day when we can go back.”
Capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, demonstrated the terrorist group’s strength of arms, and ISIS leaders used the city to project an image of stability, trying to show they could replace the functions of a tradition state.
Moreover, the city’s resources were used by the group to advance its fighting capabilities in Iraq and Syria, particularly the chemistry and science facilities at Mosul University.
In summer 2014, after ISIS captured the city, Iraqi officials reported that the group had also seized about 88 pounds of uranium compounds kept at the university. A US government source said the materials were not thought to be enriched uranium, and therefore it would have been hard to turn them into a weapon.
Iraq’s UN ambassador warned that they could be used in terrorist acts or smuggled out of Iraq, however.
By spring 2015, dozens of scientists and engineers working for the terrorist group had set up shop on the university’s labs and workspaces, building chemical bombs and suicide vests, The Wall Street Journal reported in April 2016.
The US-led coalition began targeting suspected chemical-weapons facilities in the city in early 2016, around the same time US special-operations forces captured Sulayman Dawud al-Bakkar, who worked on chemical and biological weapons under Saddam Hussein and became known as ISIS’ “emir” of chemical and traditional weapons manufacturing.
“Intelligence indicated that Da’esh converted a pharmaceutical plant complex into a chemical weapons production capability, using chlorine or mustard gas,” the US Air Force Central Command official told Business Insider after an airstrike on a ISIS weapons facility in the city in September 2016, referring to ISIS by another name.
“This represents another example of Da’esh’s blatant disregard for international law and norms.”
ISIS apparently made no exceptions on its strict religious doctrine for professors and staff at the university.
“I know a professor at Mosul University who was caught by the Isis hisbah (religious police) in a room with his female colleague correcting students’ final exams notes,” Dr. Firas Ghalib, a neurologist in Mosul, told The Guardian in mid-2015. “The penalty was that he had to marry his female colleague or get 30 lashes. The professor refused as he already had a wife and children, and he accepted the lashes.”
As Iraqi force pressed through the university complex this month, they reported finding chemical substances ISIS had tried to use to make weapons.
ISIS has used chemical agents, including mustard gas, in a number of attacks in Iraq and Syria, according to US officials, rights groups, and residents.
“For these Iraqi special forces, recapturing Mosul University was a symbolic victory,” CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata reported in late January.
“Thousands of Iraqi soldiers are thought to have lost their lives in Mosul — some in the battle to reclaim this sprawling complex, including a well-stocked chemistry where militants invented new types of bombs.”
“In a sign of how difficult these battles are,” D’Agata said, “we weren’t allowed anywhere near the chemistry lab, because we were told ISIS left the building booby-trapped. It’s a typical ISIS strategy that slows down Iraqi forces while militants regroup elsewhere.”