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ISIS Leader's Death Met With Joy And Skepticism In Mosul


In the part of Iraq where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the so-called Islamic caliphate, people are reacting to the news of his death. ISIS ruled the city of Mosul for three brutal and devastating years. Some people there don't believe he's dead or that it would even matter if he is. NPR's Jane Arraf reports from Mosul.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Two years after ISIS was driven out of Mosul, a street outside the mosque where al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic State is slowly coming back to life. Between the damaged, shuttered shops, there's a bakery, a hardware store, even a shop selling songbirds.

MAHMOUD SAEED: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Mahmoud Saeed, a local imam, was in the nearby al-Nuri mosque the day that Baghdadi roared up with dozens of bodyguards and strode to the pulpit. Baghdadi told worshippers he was the latest successor to an Islamic ruler known as Abu Bakr 13 centuries ago.

SAEED: (Through interpreter) He quoted Abu Bakr's speech when the Muslims chose him as their leader. And he said, you've chosen me as your caliph, but we did it.

ARRAF: ISIS and the U.S.-backed battle to drive them out destroyed this part of Mosul. It killed thousands of people. Most families here have members killed either by ISIS or in the battle over the city. Many are skeptical that he's dead. And actually, some of the people gathered around this tea shop think the Iraqi who pronounced himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, supposedly from the city of Samarra, was a U.S. invention, a fake.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "If he were from Samarra like they say, we would know his tribe," says one of the imam's friends who doesn't want to give his name. They say the family al-Baghdadi was said to have come from owns a restaurant, and everyone knows their son wasn't an ISIS leader.

So who was he, then?

SAEED: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "We don't know. Ask America. Ask Donald Trump," says Saeed. He says it's theater produced by America and Israel.

Marwa Khaled sits nearby on the sidewalk. Her 5-year-old son Mohaiman holds a plastic toy rifle almost as big as he is. His father was a police officer who was killed by ISIS. Mohaiman never met him.

MARWA KHALED: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "I'm happy, but I'm not sure about the news," Khaled says. "We didn't see a body. We didn't see anything."

We meet the Mosul governor, Mansour Marid. He tells us Baghdadi's death is good news but not the end of ISIS.

MANSOUR MARID: (Through interpreter) This is only one page of the situation, and we presume there's another page to it. The game will begin again. These terrorist organizations don't stop. Osama bin Laden died, and this kind of activity continued to grow.

ARRAF: He's visiting workers reconstructing the mosque. ISIS blew it up as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces closed in. Workers shovel pieces of rubble from the collapsed walls of the 12th century mosque into wheelbarrows. It's a significant place in ISIS history.

I'm standing in the rubble in the very spot where al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate. This mosque is a part of Mosul history for hundreds of years before Baghdadi, and the U.N. has started to rebuild it. But the streets around it and the society that ISIS fractured won't be so easily repaired.

A group of workers in yellow safety vests salvages bricks from the collapsed minaret.

ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "Baghdadi is the one who destroyed the city of Mosul. He reduced us to nothing," says Abdullah, one of the laborers. He doesn't want to give his last name. People here say they'll believe Baghdadi is dead when they see it with their own eyes. But even if he is, they don't believe it will be an end to their troubles.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.