US-backed fighters elated over front-row seats to Raqa fall

Raqa (Syria) (AFP) – For three years, Syrian-Kurdish fighter Sevger Himo has been itching to witness the Islamic State group’s demise. Now, in the heart of Raqa city, he has a front-row seat.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say they have entered “the final stages” in their offensive for IS’s notorious Syrian bastion.

After cornering the jihadists in a handful of positions in Raqa’s city centre, they are now pressing their assault in streets strewn with rubble and neighbourhoods reduced to piles of smashed concrete and metal.

“When we were fighting Daesh (IS) in Kobane three years ago, we always used to talk about how the capital of the caliphate is Raqa,” says Himo, a local commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which make up a bulk of the SDF.

Sitting cross-legged on a rooftop in the heavily damaged northeastern district of Rumeilah, Himo says he has a personal stake in seeing this blistering battle through to its end.

Alongside other YPG fighters, Himo faced off against IS in late 2014 in Kobane, a strategic town on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, then in the town of Manbij to the south.

“We used to tell each other, ‘Daesh sent reinforcements, support, and equipment from Raqa!'” he says.

“Now we’re in the centre of Raqa and it’s a completely different feeling,” Himo says.

– ‘The centre of it all’ –

IS jihadists overran Raqa in early 2014, using public squares for punishments like beheadings and lashings.

With backing from the US-led coalition, the SDF — an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters — began chipping away at the broader province of Raqa last year before breaking into the city in June.

The fighting has destroyed much of the city, with rows of crumbling buildings punctuated with a damaged refrigerator or lone tea kettle to signal that someone once lived there.

A headless, dusty body of an alleged IS fighter lies on the side of a main thoroughfare.

“Daesh has collapsed. Every battle we’ve waged, we’ve gained experience against them,” Himo says between barking orders into his walkie-talkie.

After seeing fellow YPG fighters lose life and limb in the battle against IS, he is anxious to declare victory over Raqa.

“We need to pay back this debt for those we know that died or were wounded. Raqa is the centre of it all.”

Sitting nearby, local SDF commander Abdullah, a slight man in his 50s, nods enthusiastically.

“We want to rescue our friends and family from this black filth. I lived under Daesh — I was imprisoned under…

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