Iraqi forces storm Islamic State-held Old City of Mosul
Over 850,000 civilians have fled fighting in historic district that once was Iraq’s capital
Iraqi forces advance towards Mosul’s Old City on Sunday, during the ongoing offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the last district still held by the Islamic State group. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
The historic district, and a tiny area to its north, are the only parts of the city still under control of the Islamists. Mosul used to be the Iraqi capital of the group, also known as Isis.
“Iraqi forces early this morning breach into old Mosul, the final Isis-held district in the city,” Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the international coalition fighting Islamic State, said on Twitter. “We are proud to stand with them.”
The Iraqi army estimates the number of Islamic State fighters at no more than 300, down from nearly 6,000 in the city when the battle of Mosul started on October 17th.
But the Old City is a densely-populated maze of narrow alleyways and the fighting is slow, bloody and house-to-house.
About 100,000 civilians are trapped, with little food, water or medical treatment.
“This will be a terrifying time for around 100,000 people still trapped in Mosul’s Old City . . . now at risk of getting caught up in the fierce street fighting to come,” the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said.
“This is the final chapter” of the offensive to take Mosul, said Lieut Gen Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, senior commander in Mosul of the elite Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) units spearheading the assault.
A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support to the campaign.
Several air strikes during the day hit a medical complex just north of the Old City, alongside the western bank of the Tigris river, a Reuters TV reporter said.
Armoured vehicles were heading toward the front line north of the Old City, and shelling and gunfire could be heard.
The medical complex, housing the two biggest hospitals of Mosul, is still held in part by the militants who are using its buildings as sniper outposts.
Islamic State’s security services chief in the Old City, Kanaan Jiyad Abdullah, also known as Abu Amna, was killed in the morning clashes, said Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises several Middle East governments on Islamic State affairs.
A high-ranking Islamic State figure in charge of intelligence in Mosul, Shakir Mahmud Hamad, was captured by the advancing troops in the Old City, Hashimi said.
The Iraqi government initially hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the campaign took longer as militants reinforced positions in civilian areas to fight back.
Islamic State is using suicide car and motorbike bombs, booby traps and sniper and mortar fire against the troops.
“The buildings of the old town are particularly vulnerable to collapse even if they aren’t directly targeted, which could lead to even more civilian deaths than the hundreds killed so far in air strikes across the rest of the city,” the IRC said.
“We are trying to be very careful, using only light and medium weapons ... to avoid casualties among civilians,” CTS divisional commander Maj Gen Maan Saadi told Iraqi state TV.
Hundreds of civilians fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past three weeks, as Iraqi forces could not fully secure exit corridors.
“An estimated 50,000 children are in grave danger as the fighting in Mosul enters what is likely to be its deadliest phase yet,” Save the Children warned in a statement.
“We expect thousands of families to escape from the Old City. We have made all preparations to evacuate them from the front lines,” army colonel Salam Faraj said.
Islamic State snipers are shooting at families trying to flee on foot or by boat across the Tigris, as part of a tactic to keep civilians as human shields, the United Nations said on Friday.
The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the “caliphate” that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in a speech from a mosque in the Old City three years ago and which once covered large areas of Iraq and Syria.