Beirut — U.S.-backed Syrian forces celebrated in the devastated streets of Raqqa on Tuesday after gaining control of the northern city that once was the heart of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, dealing a major defeat to the extremist group that has seen its territory shrink ever smaller since summer.
Militants took over the vibrant metropolis on the Euphrates River in 2014, transforming it into the epicenter of their brutal rule, where opponents were beheaded and terror plots hatched.
It took thousands of bombs dropped by the U.S.-led coalition and more than four months of grueling house-to-house battles for the Syrian Democratic Forces to recapture Raqqa, marking a new chapter in the fight against the group whose once vast territory has been reduced to a handful of towns in Syria and Iraq.
“Liberating Raqqa is a triumph for humanity, especially women,” who suffered the most under IS, said Ilham Ahmed, a senior member of the SDF political wing.
Fighters from the SDF celebrated by chanting and honking their horns as they spun doughnuts with their Humvees and armored personnel carriers, and hoisting yellow SDF flags around Naim, or Paradise Square.
The infamous square was the site of public beheadings and other killings by the militants. Bodies and severed heads would be displayed there for days, mounted on posts and labeled with their alleged crimes, according to residents who later dubbed it “Hell Square.”
Crumbled and flattened buildings stood behind the fighters as they drove around the square, a sign of the massive destruction the city has suffered since the militants took over. It was in Naim Square that the extremists paraded tanks and military hardware in 2014 in a chilling show of force that was a sign of things to come.
“Military operations in Raqqa have ceased and we are now combing the city for sleeper cells and cleaning it from land mines,” Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo said earlier in the day. A formal declaration that Raqqa has fallen would be made soon, once troops finish their clearing operations, Sillo said.
Col. Ryan Dillon, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, was more cautious, saying only that “more than 90 percent” of Raqqa had been cleared. He estimated 100 IS militants were still in the city and said he expects the SDF to encounter “pockets of resistance” during the clearing operations.
The battle of Raqqa has killed more than 1,000 civilians, many of them in coalition airstrikes in recent months, and displaced tens of thousands of people who face the prospect of returning to ruined homes. The coalition and residents who managed to escape accused the militants of using civilians as human shields and tried to stop them from leaving the city.
The Islamic State has steadily lost ground in Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. It has also lost major territory to Syrian government forces who have been marching against the group in a simultaneous but separate offensive, mainly in Deir el-Zour province.
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