The US-backed Iraqi troops fought fierce street battles to close in on the strategic area of the al-Nuri Mosque in the heart of Mosul’s old city, while the air forces escalated their strikes on ISIS positions.
At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq.
It was the mosque of Mosul where al-Baghdadi declared his Caliphate and named himself as the ruler of all Muslims from Mosul’s Great Mosque after his forces swept through northern Iraq in 2014.
However, ISIS’s territory is shrinking rapidly since last year as the US-led coalition, the Turkish-backed forces, and the Russian-backed Assad regime forces have fierce fights against its forces in both Syria and Iraq.
The United States is providing air and ground support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces trying to dislodge the hardline group from Mosul.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19.
Islamic State militants who retreated across the Tigris river to western districts also regularly target civilian areas under government control in the east with mortars and grenades dropped from drones.
Several thousand militants, including many who travelled from Western countries to join up, are believed to be in Mosul among a remaining civilian population estimated at the start of the offensive at 750,000.
They are using mortars, sniper fire, booby traps and suicide car bombs to fight the offensive carried out by a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, regional Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iranian-trained Shi’ite paramilitary groups.
Closing on the mosque
An airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition backing Iraq forces in their campaign to retake Mosul also killed six foreign militant commanders in the west, including a Russian who was a senior Islamic State leader, Iraq’s defense ministry said.
Federal Police troops on Sunday advanced past the train station in western Mosul close to the mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in July 2014 after the hardline militants had seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Residents fled from the area, carrying suitcases and bags of belongings and picking their way through the wrecked buildings as shells and gunfire echoed behind them. Most of them were women and children.
“Federal Police and Rapid Response forces resumed their advance after halting operations due to bad weather. The troops have a target of retaking the rest of the Old City,” a police spokesman said.
The battle to recapture Islamic State’s last stronghold in Iraq has now entered its sixth month. Iraqi government forces, backed by U.S. advisers, artillery and air support, have cleared the east and half of western Mosul and are now focused on controlling the Old City.
Recent fighting has targeted the centuries-old al-Nuri Mosque, with its famous leaning minaret. Its capture would be a blow for Islamic State as it was from there that Baghdadi declared himself head of his self-proclaimed caliphate.
U.S. officials estimate about 2,000 IS fighters remain inside Iraq’s second largest city, resisting with mortar fire, snipers and suicide car bombs that plow into army positions.
The black Islamic State flag still flew from the mosque’s minaret on Sunday.
Iraq’s defence ministry said in a statement a coalition air strike destroyed a command centre, killing Russian leader Abdul Kareem al-Rusi, head of the Tareq Bin Ziyad brigade, as well as a British-Algerian, a French-Syrian, a Turkish commander and two fighters from Morocco.
250.000 civilians were displaced
As fighting intensified, civilians streamed out of western neighbourhoods recaptured by the government,
desperate and hungry and traumatised by living under ISIS’s harsh rule. Some pushed children and sick elderly relatives in handcarts and wheelbarrows.
“We have been trapped for 25 days. No water, no food, everyone will die and they will have to pull us from the rubble,” said one resident of Bab Jdid district, not giving his name because relatives remained inside Mosul.
Families with elderly relatives and children marched through western Mosul’s muddy streets, past buildings pock-marked by bullet and bombs. Some said they had hardly eaten in weeks, scrambling for supplies handed out by a local aid agency.
“It is terrible, Islamic State have destroyed us. There is no food, no bread. There is absolutely nothing,” said another resident.
Soldiers packed them into trucks on the Mosul-Baghdad highway to be taken to processing areas.
As many as 600,000 civilians are caught with the militants inside Mosul, which Iraqi forces have effectively sealed off from the remaining territory that Islamic State controls in Iraq and Syria, while nearly 100,000 Iraqis have fled western Mosul in the past three weeks.
Around 255,000 people have been displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas since October, including more than 100,000 since the latest military campaign in western Mosul began on Feb. 19, according to United Nations figures.
The last week has seen the highest level of displacement yet, with 32,000 displaced between March 12 and 15.
More expected to flee
That number may still rise sharply. The United Nations last month warned that more than 400,00 people, more than half the remaining population in western Mosul, could be displaced. Fears of more chemical attacks are driving some people out.
“up to 450,000 are expected to make their way to the camps,” Lise Grande, humanitarian coordinator for the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, said.
One civilian said that mortar rounds were falling as they fled. They took advantage of the army retaking their district to get out.
“ISIS wanted us to move to their areas but we escaped when the army arrived,” he said.
Even when they are fleeing, death keeps hunting the Iraqi civilians as there are no safe humanitarian corridors out of the city and ISIS militants were shooting anyone who tries to leave.
“There is no secure humanitarian corridor to get out of the neighbourhoods that have been cleared, but even then there is still crossfire,” she said.
“They [civilians] are having to make their way over barren land … just south-west of Mosul. We have seen people walking across land; people in wheelchairs, women with children exhausted and terrified, also leaving relatives behind because they are not sure if the route is secure.”
The World Health Organization has set up multiple trauma stabilising points (TSP), as close to the frontlines as possible, Grande said. There, wounded civilians are given emergency care before being transporting to the nearest hospital.
“What is striking about this crisis is that half of the casualties are civilians,” said Grande.”TSP areas have had to dramatically expand. We were not expecting this amount of casualties.”
Out of the entire IDP population at the refugee camps, 56 percent are children under 18.
There are about 1,000 unaccompanied children who have been separated from their families while attempting to flee since the offensive on western Mosul began, said Grande. “They [unaccompanied children] are the most vulnerable. They require the most intensive care we provide.”