The U.S.-led coalition has congratulated Iraqi forces on retaking Mosul from the Islamic State group after Iraq's prime minister declared victory in the northern city.
U.S. Central Command said that "while there are still areas of the Old City of Mosul that must be back-cleared of explosive devices and possible ISIS fighters in hiding," Iraqi forces "have Mosul now firmly under their control."
The coalition has provided crucial air support to Iraqi forces since they launched the Mosul offensive in October.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said "make no mistake; this victory alone does not eliminate ISIS and there is still a tough fight ahead," using another acronym for IS. But he said the loss of the city "is a decisive blow."
MOSUL, Iraq — Iraqi forces were still battling Islamic State militants in a small area of Mosul on Monday, a day after the prime minister visited to congratulate the troops on retaking nearly all of Iraq's second largest city.
Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil of the Iraqi special forces said that even after the militants are defeated in the last pocket under their control, Iraqi forces will need to carry out clearing operations to root out sleeper cells and defuse booby traps.
Iraqi commanders believe hundreds of IS fighters remain inside the group's last enclave and are using their families — including women and children — as human shields in a fight to the death. Humvees could be seen racing out of the Old City on Monday, ferrying wounded soldiers to field hospitals.
"There's no accurate estimate for the Daesh fighters and the families who are stuck there," said Lt. Gen. Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi, a senior special forces commander, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
He said most civilians left in the Old City are believed to be IS family members. "But we will not accuse them of anything," he said. "if they don't carry weapons they are civilians."
The battle for Mosul has killed thousands and displaced more than 897,000 people, and the United Nations said Monday there was no end in sight to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq despite the recent gains in Mosul.
It said thousands of Mosul residents will likely remain displaced from the city after the fight is concluded because of "extensive damage caused during the conflict."
Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, fell to the Islamic State group in 2014, when IS blitzed across much of northwestern Iraq and subsequently declared a caliphate in the territory under its control in Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake Mosul last October and by late January, the eastern half of the city was declared liberated. The push into western Mosul began the following month. In June, Iraqi forces started the weeks long push through the Old City, Mosul's most congested district.
On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers celebrated recent gains, though Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stopped short of declaring an outright victory.
On his visit to Mosul, al-Abadi met field commanders, kissed babies and toured a reopened market. But airstrikes and sniper fire continued amid the revelry.
Over the nearly nine-month campaign, Iraqi forces have reduced the IS hold on Mosul to less than a square kilometer (less than a mile) of territory.
"We are glad to see normal life return for the citizens," al-Abadi said, according to a statement from his office. "This is the result of the sacrifices of the (country's) heroic fighters."
A few kilometers away, special forces commanders climbed over mounds of rubble on the edge of the Old City to plant an Iraqi flag on the western bank of the Tigris, marking weeks of hard-fought gains.