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5 years since Mosul, Iraq, was freed from ISIS, its mosque is under reconstruction

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Iraqi city of Mosul has been gradually coming back in the five years since it was freed from the grip of ISIS. One symbol of that is the rebuilding of an iconic leaning minaret of the 12th century al-Nuri mosque. ISIS blew it up in a final act of vandalism as it fled the city in 2017. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on the efforts to rebuild the mosque and the city.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: For centuries, the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri has peered out over Mosul's Old City. Rising above the winding alleyways, the narrow tower called Muslims to prayer. In 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose the iconic al-Nuri mosque as the place where he declared that ISIS had established a new caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Three years later, as Iraqi soldiers and U.S. airstrikes drove the militants from Mosul, ISIS blew up the minaret and much of the mosque.

OMAR TAQA: We found the IEDs - all the IEDs inside the walls.

BEAUBIEN: Omar Taqa, the assistant site coordinator for the reconstruction of al-Nuri, says crews found 11 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that hadn't yet gone off inside the prayer hall of the mosque.

TAQA: And also, we found two IEDs over this arch and also an IED also under the dome.

BEAUBIEN: An Egyptian design firm, along with architects from the University of Mosul, is designing the new mosque complex. The project is being overseen by the UN cultural preservation agency UNESCO. The plan is to reuse as much of the original marble and other materials from the mosque as possible, and the rebuilt minaret will also lean at the same angle as the old one. But Taqa insists it will be leaning safely.

TAQA: The amount of leaning will be under control, so the design of the new foundation and the buildings will be according to that leaning.

BEAUBIEN: The reconstruction isn't expected to be finished until the end of 2023. The area around al-Nuri was heavily bombed by Iraqi and U.S. forces in the final battle for Mosul in 2017. Much of the Old City was destroyed or damaged. Nearby buildings still lie in piles of rubble. Others are being fixed up. Some have been completely rebuilt. A cafe and a shop selling Mosul souvenirs has opened across the gate leading to the construction site at al-Nuri.

(CROSSTALK)

BEAUBIEN: Just a few blocks away, a market selling fresh fish, vegetables and spices is now bustling with shoppers. Zakarya Khader Ibrahim has a small blacksmith shop deep in the market where men are sharpening knives.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNIVES SCRAPING)

BEAUBIEN: He says the rebuilding of al-Nuri mosque is a huge step in rebuilding after the ouster of ISIS.

ZAKARYA KHADER IBRAHIM: (Through interpreter) So if we talk history and civilization and development now, like, al-Nuri mosque is the base and the root, the real base of Mosul, the real infrastructure of Mosul.

BEAUBIEN: He says the city is coming back step by step. Five years after ISIS was forced out, there are still a lot of destroyed structures and reminders of the militants' brutality. The building where ISIS used to sell Yazidi women is now an office for Iraqi security forces. A roundabout where ISIS carried out executions now has a statue of a woman with flowing hair perched on a wave. What used to be an ISIS prison for women is now the mayor's office as the final touches are being put on a new city hall. Zuhair al-Araji is a longtime politician from Mosul, and he's been the mayor since ISIS was ousted in 2017.

ZUHAIR AL-ARAJI: (Through interpreter) This building - this government building was totally destroyed. It was rubble because ISIS used it as a prison. And then they stole all the doors, the windows, everything.

BEAUBIEN: Just about everything in Mosul, he says, has had to be rebuilt - water lines, electricity, roads, bridges. Over his two decades in politics in Mosul, he says he survived 24 assassination attempts from al-Qaida, ISIS and other militants.

AL-ARAJI: (Through interpreter) I lost 14 bodyguards in different ways. They were trying to assassinate me. And then in 2014, when ISIS took over the city, they blew up my house, and they took all of my properties.

BEAUBIEN: Now, he says, Mosul is safer than it's been in years. He still drives around in an armored SUV, but he says at least he can get out and walk down the sidewalk to chat with people, and he says he does it without fear. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mosul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.