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Iraq forces ‘near Mosul mosque where Daesh declared caliphate’

By AFP - Mar 18,2017 - Last updated at Mar 18,2017

Smoke rises from clashes near Mosul’s Al Habda minaret at the Grand Mosque, where Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared his caliphate back in 2014, as Iraqi forces battle to drive out Daesh militants from the western part of Mosul, Iraq, on Friday (Reuters photo)

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

Iraq began an operation on February 19 to retake west Mosul, which is the last major Daesh 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 Daesh 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 units.

He was referring to Al Nuri Mosque, where Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared the cross-border "caliphate" spanning extremist-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 Daesh, further complicated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of civilians believed to have stayed on under extremist 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 [Daesh] 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 Daesh.

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.

 

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 Daesh following months of losses in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Iraqi authorities launched the fight to retake Mosul from the extremists on October 17 last year, with the support of the US-led coalition that launched strikes against Daesh 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”.

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