The liberation of Iraq’s historic and symbolic al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, by the Iraqi security forces, in June 2017 marked the beginning of the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). When militants of ISIS were holed up by advancing Iraqi forces, they blew up the mosque and its historic al-Hadba minaret. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, described this destruction by ISIS fighters as “a formal declaration of their defeat” and announced “the end of the state let of ISIS after Mosul’s liberation. Though al-Nuri mosque, built in 12th century, has remained one of the Islamic world’s most respected sites, its significance has further grown and changed in the recent context. The reason being, that ISIS leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, announced the Caliphate from this mosque in 2014. ISIS — a radical militant extremist group — first emerged as an offshoot of the insurgent group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in the wake of America and the UK’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi formed AQI in 2004, after pledging allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. Zarqawi was a Jordanian who ran terrorist training camps in Afghanistan till 2000. After Zarqawi’s death in 2006, AQI created an umbrella organization — Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). In the subsequent years of 2007 and 2008, AQI was somewhat weakened by the Sahwa movement — a force of Iraqi tribesmen supported by the US with the objective of reducing influence of AQI. After the US withdrawal in 2011, Sahwa gradually came to an end. Amid the political turmoil, violence, chaos and IS advance, Iraq’s Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gave a decree and asked the people to volunteer and join security forces in defending the country, its people and holy sites. Sistani’s decree became a turning point in Iraq’s fight against ISIS In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed the leadership of ISI and began to strengthen it. By 2013, under Baghdadi’s leadership, ISI carried out several bombings and suicide attacks in Iraq. Baghdadi and his group joined the Al-Qaeda’s extension in Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra, which was fighting in the Syrian civil war against the Syrian government. This force swiftly gained notoriety worldwide for its brutal manner of killing its opponents. In April 2013, Baghdadi merged his forces in Iraq and Syria and created the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. While the leaders of al-Nusra rejected this move, fighters loyal to Baghdadi dissociated from al-Nusra and joined ISIS. After the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq in December 2011, violence in Iraq intensified to unprecedented proportions. In July 2013, at least 500 militants, including senior Al-Qaeda terrorists, escaped from the Abu Ghraib prison in a violent mass breakout.Taking advantage of Iraq’s political crisis and alleged unfair treatment of Sunni population, some former Baathist generals — Saddam regime’s military officers — also joined the ranks of ISIS to exploit the situation. After escalating violent movements in the western Anbar province, ISIS took over some areas of the province in July 2014, including the strategically important city of Fallujah. Strengthening its control in Anbar, ISIS began to pose a formidable challenge to Iraqi security forces. It launched a lightning and surprise assault on Iraq’s security forces and seized the northern parts, including Mosul, without much resistance. The Iraqi army soon fled the areas, deserting the check posts and leaving behind a huge stockpile of American-supplied weapons. Having strengthened its control over the vast territory from Raqqa province in northeastern Syria to Iraq’s western province of Anbar and the towns of Mosul, Tikrit and others in northern Iraq, ISIS declared a caliphate from the Grand al-Nuri Mosque. Amid the political turmoil, violence, chaos and advancing ISIS, Iraq’s Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gave a decree and asked the people to volunteer and join security forces in defending the country, its people and holy sites. Sistani’s decree became a turning point in Iraq’s fight against ISIS. Following his call thousands of Iraqis volunteered to participate in the fight and many sacrificed their lives while fighting on the frontlines. Within two days of the decree an umbrella organisation al-Hashd al-Sha’abi, known as Popular Mobilisation Forces, was formed by Iraq’s Ministry of Interior. Troops of Hashd played an instrumental role in defeating ISIS and liberating several towns from the Anbar province to the northern town of Mosul. ISIS — once controlling large Iraqi territory — is now shrunk only to the towns of Hawija and Qaim, and half of the city of Shirqat. Despite the heavy losses inflicted by ISIS upon the civilians and security forces, determination and courage of Iraqi people to defend their country and fight against ISIS is exemplary. The recent swift liberation of town of Tal Afar has boosted the morale of Iraqi forces. As Prime Minister al-Abadi announced after Tal Afar’s liberation: “We say to the criminals of Daesh, wherever you are, we are coming for liberation, and you have no choice but to die or surrender.” Though a complete victory for Iraq against ISIS seems near, the possibility of terrorist attacks on population cannot be ruled out. The main challenge for Iraq — to defeat the militant ideology — is likely to remain. The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at University of Karachi and a visiting faculty member at IBA, Karachi.He tweets at @saj_ahmd Published in Daily Times, September 22nd 2017.