MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took to the pulpit of Iraq’s historic al-Nuri mosque to declare his caliphate in 2014, residents of Mosul had no idea the extent to which their city would be devastated.
“This strange man we had never seen before took the podium instead of our regular imam,” said Fahd Qishmou, 48, who attended Baghdadi’s infamous speech, proclaiming himself “caliph” over millions of people in Iraq and Syria.
“He came to our mosque, a place of peace for us, and he turned it into a place of hell,” said Qishmou, a father of eight.
Once a proud symbol of Mosul, the 850-year-old mosque has lain in ruin since Islamic State was routed there in 2017, piles of twisted metal and flattened stone.
Wearing black robes, with a long beard, Baghdadi, residents said, spoke eloquently and with extreme calm. Drones, controlled by Baghdadi’s personal guard, made up mostly of foreign fighters, hovered overhead and cut off communication.
“All of a sudden, he declared Islamic State was born,” Qishmou said, “and asked us all to pledge allegiance.”
Baghdadi, who had led the jihadist group since 2010, died "whimpering and crying" in a raid here by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Sunday.
“I knew we were heading for trouble the day that man walked into my mosque,” said Abu Omran, a 60-year-old metalworker.
“I told my son, that man will bring death and destruction – and I was right.”
Qishmou, who now drives a taxi after his yoghurt shops were destroyed during the war to retake Mosul, was one of several residents Reuters spoke to in the shadow of the al-Nuri mosque, where Baghdadi announced the birth of his ultra-extremist group.
It was the crowning moment in a reign of terror that stretched over three years and two countries. Islamic State overran large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014 only to be beaten back in 2017. Mosul was their Iraqi capital.
Few minced their words looking back on Baghdadi’s reign. Some swore, even as the call to prayer wafted overheard.
“Because of him, we starved ... We lived on flour and water for months, cowering in our basements,” said Abu Omran. “I don’t wish that life on my worst enemy.”
“You ask if I’m happy he died? I would be happy if my house hadn’t collapsed under bombs, if I hadn’t been whipped and shot by (Islamic State fighters), if my son hadn’t been killed. We never even tasted victory, how can we ever be happy again?”
Abu Omran looked around the ruins of the Old City as he spoke. The neighborhood, a warren of narrow streets dating back centuries and now reduced mostly to rubble, saw the fiercest fighting as Islamic State dug in for its final stand.
Its streets bear the scars of the horrors Moslawis survived – either living under Islamic State’s draconian rule or during nine months of brutal fighting, as Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition fought to recapture the city.
When Baghdadi first announced Mosul was his, some residents welcomed the change in leadership. The Sunni Muslim city had been lawless and outside the control of the Shi’ite-led central government for years since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“There had always been people at the mosque who were sympathetic to Al Qaeda, who hated living under these new Shi’ite leaders,” said Abu Omran, who frequented the mosque weekly before and after Islamic State came to power.
“After Baghdadi spoke, I looked around the room – there were at least 1,000 people there – some people were smiling, praising God for sending them a true Muslim leader.”
Residents told stories of how in the first few weeks, it seemed like a new dawn for Mosul. Security forces who had long clashed with Al Qaeda fighters in their neighborhoods were now gone, they said, and the streets were clean and calm.
But then Baghdadi’s foot soldiers came out in force, foreign fighters and religious police watching their every move.
“We were whipped for smoking, beaten for letting our women out of the house without face coverings and using mobile phones” said shopkeeper Dawoud Omar Dawoud, 42. “Baghdadi imprisoned us in our own city.”
The group soon lost popularity in the areas it took over after it started enforcing its strict ultra-orthodox version of Islam with public beheadings, executions and floggings.
“His death doesn’t really matter – the second that man set foot in our city, he killed us all,” Dawoud said.
Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Grant McCool