UNITED NATIONS – The liberation of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul "is imminent" and the days of the Islamic State extremist group's self-declared caliphate "are numbered," the U.N. envoy for Iraq said Monday.
But Jan Kubis told the Security Council that despite progress, fighting remains "a tremendous challenge" because IS fighters are increasingly using civilians as human shields in "a last-gasp effort that reveals little more than the inherent inhuman barbarity of the terrorists."
He paid tribute to Iraqi security forces and their coalition partners for trying to limit the impact of military operations to protect civilians, "even if that comes at the cost of prolonging a harsh, bitter campaign that continues to claim both civilian and military lives."
Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, officially launched the operation to retake Mosul, the country's second-largest city, in October. The city's east was declared "fully liberated" in January and the fight for the west was launched the following month. It has been marked by some of the most grueling and deadly combat in the fight against IS in Iraq to date.
The city fell to IS fighters during a lightning charge in June 2014 that left nearly a third of Iraq in IS militants' hands and plunged the country into its most severe crisis since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The Islamic State's "caliphate," declared after the June 2014 military campaign, once stretched across northern Syria through much of northern and western Iraq. But the group, also known as ISIL and Daesh, is now under attack in both countries and the territory it controls has shrunk.
Kubis said military operations in Iraq are shifting to the remaining areas and pockets where IS extremists are still present. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced that the next steps are to secure the Iraq-Syria border and to liberate west of Ninewa and Anbar governorates, the U.N. envoy said.
"Although large-scale military operations against ISIL will hopefully conclude by the end of this year, the security environment will remain volatile and will be characterized by continued cowardly terrorist attacks by Daesh, targeting civilians in many parts of the country," he said.
"Whenever given the opportunity, Daesh, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups will likely seek to tap into and deepen sectarian, tribal or ethnic divides, including by cooperating with criminal gangs," Kubis added.
To deal with these challenges, he said a long-term, comprehensive reform of the security sector "is imperative"
Kubis said a dual focus must be maintained on the immediate challenges of defeating IS extremists and on preparing for the liberation, stabilization and rehabilitation of Iraq.
Continuing substantial international support for Iraq "is indispensable in the forthcoming period" to facilitate the return home of tens of thousands of people who fled the fighting to liberated areas in conditions of security and law and order, he said.
In addition, he said, "the imminent defeat of Daesh provides an urgent impetus to address the concerns of minorities ... (who) continue to face existential challenges and need special attention" so they can return home.
Kubis expressed continuing concern at the delay in returning displaced residents to areas liberated long ago and at many hundreds of alleged disappearances that remain unresolved, saying these and other issues can undermine efforts toward national reconciliation and a political settlement in Iraq.