First Published: 2017-06-18

Iraqi forces storm Mosul Old City
US-led coalition air strikes accompany ground assault by Iraqi forces on Old City where 100,000 civilians could be used as human shields.
Middle East Online

Across the Tigris river, on Mosul's east bank, life went on almost as usual

MOSUL - Iraqi forces launched an assault Sunday to retake Mosul's Old City, the last district still held by the Islamic State group three years after the jihadists seized the northern city and declared their "caliphate".

Military commanders said the assault had begun at dawn after overnight air strikes by the US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces. They said the jihadists were putting up fierce resistance.

The push into Mosul's Old City -- a densely populated warren of narrow alleyways on the western side of Iraq's second city -- marks the culmination of a months-long campaign by Iraqi forces to retake IS's last major urban stronghold in the country.

The loss of Mosul would mark the effective end of the Iraqi portion of the cross-border "caliphate" IS declared in the summer of 2014 after seizing large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

The military announced the start of the assault in a statement, saying the army, counter-terrorism forces and federal police had "launched an attack on the Old City".

Machinegun fire crackled and plumes of smoke rose above the Old City as surrounding Iraqi positions were hit with heavy mortar fire.

On the first floor of a building on a street lined with destroyed car repair shops, a CTS commander holding a tablet computer feverishly called in coordinates for an air strike against a suicide car bomb approaching his position.

Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a senior commander with the Counter-Terrorism Service, said the operation was advancing slowly "to preserve civilian lives as we breach the enemy's defence lines".

- 'Last episode of IS show' -

"Our forces have moved in on foot because the alleys are very narrow," he said. "The strategy has changed compared to other operations. There is no room for our vehicles to manoeuvre and there are many civilians."

The United Nations said Friday that IS may be holding more than 100,000 civilians as human shields in the Old City.

Surrounded by Iraqi forces on three sides and blocked on the other by the Tigris River that runs through Mosul, the jihadists had no choice but a fight to the finish, Assadi said.

"This is the last episode of the Daesh show," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

"It's our most difficult operation. Fighting is fierce because it's their last stronghold... They have nowhere to flee."

He said he hoped the operation could be concluded before Eid -- the festival marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, expected around June 25 or 26 -- "but I think it is going to take longer".

Iraqi forces launched the battle for Mosul in October, retaking the eastern part of the city in January and starting the operation for its western part the following month.

The International Rescue Committee, a major aid group operating in Iraq, warned of the huge risks facing already-traumatised civilians.

"This will be a terrifying time for around 100,000 people still trapped in Mosul's Old City and now at risk of getting caught up in the fierce street fighting to come," the IRC's acting country director Nora Love said in a statement.

"Both coalition and Iraqi forces must do everything in their power to keep civilians safe during these final stages of the battle for Mosul."

Since the battle to retake Mosul began, an estimated 862,000 people have been displaced from the city, although 195,000 have since returned, mainly to its eastern side.

It was in Mosul in July 2014 that IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance, urging Muslims worldwide to move to the group's "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria.

The jihadists have since lost most of the territory they once controlled in the face of US-backed offensives in Iraq and in Syria, where an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces are advancing on their last Syrian bastion Raqa.

It is not clear how many IS members remain in Mosul, where many foreign fighters have joined local jihadists since the city was taken.

"The locals in Daesh will shave their beards and try to blend in with the civilians as they always do," Assadi of the CTS said. "The foreigners will fight hard and eventually get killed."

The fall of Mosul was Iraqi forces' worst defeat in the war with IS.

Regaining it would cap a major turnaround for security forces, who broke and ran despite outnumbering the jihadists who attacked the city in 2014.

 

US-backed forces capture key Syria oil field

Iraq PM arrives in Saudi to upgrade ties

UN ends Libya talks with no progress made

Tillerson does not expect Gulf crisis to be resolved soon

Ancient Turkish town set to vanish forever under floodwaters

Gulf share values plummet

More than half of Austrians vote for anti-immigration party

Washington sees potential Hezbollah threat in the US

Cairo killing sparks security concerns among Copts

35 Egyptian police killed in Islamist ambush

Morocco recalls Algeria envoy over 'hashish money' jibe

Ceremony marks 75 years since WWII Battle of El Alamein

Somalia attack death toll rises to 358

Long road ahead for families of jailed Morocco protesters

How Raqa recapture affects complex Syrian war

Israel hits Syrian artillery after Golan fire

Germany advances Israel submarine deal after corruption holdup

Bashir Gemayel's killer convicted, 35 years later

SDF hails 'historic victory' against IS in Raqa

Hamas delegation visits Iran

Turkish court orders release of teacher on hunger strike

Yemen rebel youth minister urges children to join war

Iran's Guards show no intention of curbing activities in Mideast

EU will cut some money for Turkey as ties sour

Iraqi workers return to oil fields retaken from Kurds

Kurdish disarray shows resurgence of Iraq's army

Iranian military chief visits frontline near Syria's Aleppo

Iraq army takes last Kurd-held area of Kirkuk province

Turkey issues arrest warrants for 110 people over Gulen links

Lebanon approves first budget since 2005

Moscow seeks to boost its influence in Kurdistan through oil

Hamas calls US unity comments ‘blatant interference’

OPEC chief pleased with oil market rebalancing

Turkish police detain leading civil society figure

G7, tech giants meet to tackle terror online

Iraq’s Kurdish regional government open to Baghdad talks

Tensions flare among Yemen's rebels

Baghdad court issues arrest warrant for Iraqi Kurd VP

Erdogan, Nigerian counterpart to ramp up cooperation

Russian medics operate on Yemen's Saleh despite embargo

Baghdad condemns oil deal between Russia’s Rosneft, Kurds

Power shifts again in Iraq's multi-ethnic Kirkuk

Syrian general accused of journalist deaths killed in Deir Ezzor

Raqa liberators ready for civilian handover, on to next battle

Revolutionary Guards say Iranian missile program will continue