Iraqi forces battle towards heart of Mosul’s Old City

US-trained urban warfare units are leading the fight in the maze of narrow alleyways of the Old City, aiming to open routes for civilians to flee Islamic State’s last stand there.

world Updated: Jun 25, 2017 18:53 IST
Mosul’s Old City,850-year-old al-Nuri mosque,Islamic State
An Iraqi forces member patrols Mosul’s industrial zone.(AFP)

Iraqi forces battled their way along two streets that meet in the heart of Mosul’s Old City on Friday, and said they aimed to open routes for civilians to flee Islamic State’s last stand there.

US-trained urban warfare units are leading the fight in the maze of narrow alleyways of the Old City, the last district in the hands of the Islamist insurgents.

Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory in the northern Iraqi city in the Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramzan , during the next few days. Military analysts say government troops’ advance will gather pace after Islamic State fighters blew up the 850-year-old al-Nuri mosque and its famous leaning minaret on Wednesday.

Islamic State retaliated with a triple bombing on a neighbourhood in east Mosul, the other side the Tigris River. The attack was carried out by three people who detonated explosive belts, killing and wounding an unspecified number of people, according to a military statement.

It was in the al-Nuri mosque that Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed its “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago. The destruction of the mosque gives troops more freedom in attack as they no longer have to worry about damaging the ancient site.

A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support in the eight-month-old offensive to drive the militants from their de facto capital in Iraq.

“The aim is to open ways for civilians to evacuate. We give them indications by lousdspeaker when it’s possible,” an Iraqi military spokesman told Reuters by phone.

Some 7,000 civilians were brought out of the Old City this week, the Iraqi state news website said. Several street intersections were seized during the day.

More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are children, are trapped in the crumbling old houses of the Old City, with little food, water or medical treatment.

Aid organisations say Islamic State has stopped many from leaving, using them as human shields. Hundreds of civilians fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past three weeks.

Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and has been assumed to be hiding in the Iraqi-Syrian border area. There has been no confirmation of Russian reports over the past week that he has been killed, and officials in the region are sceptical.

“We don’t have any concrete evidence on whether or not he’s dead either,” US Army Col Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the international coalition battling Islamic State, told a Pentagon briefing.

In Syria, the insurgents’ “capital”, Raqqa, is nearly encircled by a US-backed Kurdish-led coalition.

“We certainly know that if he is still alive, we expect that he is not being able to influence what is currently happening in Raqqa or Mosul or overall in the ISIS (Islamic State) as they continue to lose their physical caliphate,” Dillon said.

US intelligence officials say Islamic State has moved most of its leaders, along with its online propaganda operation and its limited command and control of attacks in Europe and elsewhere, to Al Mayadin in eastern Syria’s Deir al Zour province.

First Published: Jun 24, 2017 15:38 IST