MOSUL: Iraqi forces gained ground in door-to-door fighting in the Old City of Mosul, a military spokesman said on Monday, as the US-backed offensive to capture Daesh’s de facto capital in Iraq entered its seventh month.
A Reuters correspondent saw thick smoke billowing over the Old City, near the Grand al-Nuri Mosque, from where Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” spanning parts of Iraq and Syria.
Heavy exchanges of gunfire and mortar rounds could be heard from the neighbourhoods facing the old city across the Tigris river that bisects Mosul into a western and eastern sides.
The war between Daesh militants and Iraqi forces is taking a heavy toll on several hundred thousand civilians trapped inside the city, with severely malnourished babies reaching hospitals in government-held areas. Iraqi Federal Police forces “are engaged in difficult, house-to-house clashes with Daesh fighters inside the Old City,” a media officer from these units told Reuters.
Drones are being used to locate and direct air strikes on the militants who are dug in the middle of civilians, he said.
Troops have had the famous centuries-old Al Nuri Mosque leaning minaret in their sights since last month, as capturing it would mark a symbolic victory over the insurgents.
A police spokesman said the troops were closing in on the mosque without indicating the remaining distance.
Their progress has been slow as about 400,000 civilians, or a quarter of Mosul’s pre-war population, are trapped in the Old City, according to the United Nations.
As many as half a million are estimated to remain overall in neighbourhoods still under control of the militants in western Mosul, the organisation said in a statement on Monday.
“Civilians in Mosul face incredible, terrifying risks,” said the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande.
“They are being shot at, there are artillery barrages, families are running out of supplies, medicines are scarce and water is cut-off.”
More than 327,000 have fled fighting since the offensive operation started on Oct.17, with strong air and ground support from a US-led coalition. “Mosul has pushed us to our operational limits,” Grande said.
Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, was captured by the ultra-hardline fighters in mid 2014.