First Published: 2017-03-18

Iraq forces near Mosul mosque where IS declared 'caliphate'
Elite forces 800 metres from Al-Nuri mosque as fighting continues ‘street by street’ through Mosul Old City.
Middle East Online

Black IS flag hangs from mosque's minaret

MOSUL - Elite Iraqi forces said they were battling house by house in the Old City of Mosul on Saturday, inching towards the mosque where the Islamic State group proclaimed its "caliphate" in 2014.

Iraq began an operation on February 19 to retake west Mosul, which is the last major Islamic State group urban bastion in the country and includes the Old City.

Commanders said that progress in the densely populated warren of alleyways was slow, but that government forces had made new gains from IS in the ancient central district.

"Our forces are 800 metres (yards) from the mosque," said Captain Firas al-Zuwaidi, spokesman for the interior ministry's elite Rapid Response Force.

He was referring to the Al-Nuri Mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the cross-border "caliphate" spanning jihadist-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria in his sole public appearance in July 2014.

"We are encountering difficulties -- bad weather and streets too narrow for our military vehicles which cannot enter," Zuwaidi said.

"The fighting is street by street, house by house," he said, as the sound of mortar fire rang out from the heart of Iraq's second city.

The battle for the Old City was always expected to be the toughest of the campaign to retake Mosul from IS, further complicated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of civilians believed to have stayed on under jihadist rule.

- 'Hump of western operations' -

Iraqi forces in January retook the east of the city, which is divided by the Tigris River, before setting their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west bank.

The Old City lies at the heart of west Mosul.

Emily Anagnostos, an analyst from the Institute for the Study of War think tank, said the current phase of the operation was a delicate one.

"This stage is the hump of western operations that the ISF (Iraqi security forces) needs to get over without incurring significant ISF or civilian casualties," she said.

"ISIS resistance is tough in this area, the streets are too narrow for large vehicles, and the weather is poor. ISIS is exploiting these factors as part of their defence," Anagnostos said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

The Rapid Response Force is being backed up by the federal police who have made steady gains in recent days.

They have now taken the Al-Arbiaa market and a grain silo overlooking the Old City, federal police commander Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat said on Saturday.

That came after Jawdat announced the capture of the Al-Basha Mosque and the Bab al-Saray market on Friday.

"The federal police and the Rapid Response Force led a surprise attack and besieged Daesh cells in the Old City, killing 13 of them with grenades," Jawdat said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

- Civilians evacuated -

Iraqi forces had already taken a string of key targets in west Mosul, including the airport, the train station, Mosul Museum and the provincial government headquarters.

The fall of Mosul, Iraq's second city, would be a major setback for IS following months of losses in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Iraqi authorities launched the fight to retake Mosul from the jihadists on October 17 last year, with the support of the US-led coalition that launched strikes against IS in Iraq and neighbouring Syria in 2014.

Jawdat said Saturday the federal police had evacuated civilians in the vicinity of the Old City.

More than 150,000 people have fled their homes in west Mosul, the Iraqi authorities say, of which two-thirds have found shelter in camps near the city where they receive food, blankets and foam mattresses.

The United Nations has warned that the exodus of tens of thousands of west Mosul residents could overwhelm aid groups trying to help them.

Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, has said that any increase in the pace of the exodus could stretch aid groups "to the breaking point".

 

Terrorist bomb attack kills 22 at UK pop concert

Trump says Israelis, Palestinians ‘can make a deal’

Bahrain police raid Shiite sit-in killing one protester

US forces raid Al-Qaeda in Yemen, kill seven jihadists

Faz3a, a local NGO mobilising young people to help Mosul refugees

Prominent Egypt rights lawyer detained

Oil producers to extend output curbs at OPEC meeting

NATO aims to break Turkey-Austria partnership deadlock

Tunisia tensions simmer after protester's death

Five dead in Syria car bomb attacks

Syria civilians suffer deadliest month of US-led strikes

Islamists to join Algeria cabinet despite poor results

Tunisia's 2.1% GDP growth marks economic upturn

Trump meets Palestinian leader in Bethlehem

Istanbul demolishes nightclub targeted in New Year attack

WHO says 315 cholera deaths in Yemen in under one month

Trump seeks Israeli-Palestinian peace, lashes out at Iran again

Tunisia police use tear gas on protesters

Palestinians protest for hunger-striking prisoners

GCC and Arab League call for Yemen unity

Turkey's alleged coup ringleaders stand trial

Iran’s reformists sweep to power across major cities

Israel makes concessions to Palestinians 'at Trump's request'

Ivanka hales Saudi progress on women’s rights

Looming showdown between Egypt’s president, judges

Netanyahu says will discuss peace efforts with Trump

Bahrain sentences Shiite cleric to suspended jail term

Trump scandals no issue for Saudi says minister

Saudi women celebrate easing of guardianship system, call for more freedoms

Hamas sentences three to death for commander assassination

Rouhani faces fight with hardliners in US, Iran after election win

Trump to urge Muslim leaders to fight extremism in major speech

Trump tells Sisi he will soon visit Egypt

US, Saudi agree arms deals worth almost $110 billion

Iran's Rouhani wins re-election

Egypt marks MS804 crash with ceremony and no information

Trump lands in Riyadh on first foreign tour

IS bombing kills 35 in Iraq

US Pentagon plans to 'annihilate' IS

Dictator's nephew apologises to Tunisia for corruption

Trump heads to Saudi Arabia as domestic scandals mount

Ebrahim Raisi: hardline challenger in Iran

US and Saudi Arabia blacklist Hezbollah 'terrorist'

UN envoy slams deadly attack in Libya's south

Syria, allies condemn attack by US-led coalition