Iraqi forces advance on Mosul mosque where IS declared caliphate

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on Wednesday began a push towards the mosque in Mosul where the Islamic State declared a so-called caliphate three years ago, military officials said.

A flag of Islamic State militants is seen atop Mosul’s Al-Hadba Minaret at the Grand Mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014, during clashes between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, March 24, 2017. Picture taken March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

Forces surrounded the jihadist group’s stronghold in Mosul’s Old City on Tuesday, where the medieval al-Nuri Grand Mosque is located, they said.

The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) was 200-300 meters (yards) from the mosque, according to an Iraqi army statement, a view supported by a senior commander of the international coalition fighting the state Islamic.

The US-led coalition is providing air and ground support for the Mosul offensive which began on October 17.

The militants’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself caliph from the pulpit of the mosque after insurgents overran parts of Iraq and Syria. Its black flag has been flying on its famous leaning minaret since June 2014.

Iraqi officials have privately expressed hope that the mosque can be captured in time for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. The first day of Eid falls on June 25 or 26 this year in Iraq.

The battle for the Old City becomes the deadliest in the

eight-month-old offensive to seize Mosul, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Iraq.

More than 100,000 civilians, half of them children, are trapped in its fragile old houses with little food, water, medicine, no electricity and limited access to clinics.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday that sick and injured civilians fleeing through Islamic State lines were dying in “large numbers”.

“We are trying to keep the families inside their homes and after securing their block, we will evacuate them through safe routes,” said Lt. Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, senior commander of the STC in Mosul, on Iraqi state television.

Militants move stealthily through the old town’s maze of narrow alleys and streets, through holes dug between houses, repelling advancing troops with sniper and mortar fire, booby traps and suicide bombers .

They have also covered many streets with tarpaulins to obstruct aerial surveillance, making it difficult for advancing troops to reach them without risk to civilians.

“We are attacking on different fronts simultaneously to divide them into smaller groups that are easier to fight,” said an officer from the Federal Police, another force taking part in the assault on the Old City.

The Iraqi army estimates the number of Islamic State fighters at no more than 300, compared to nearly 6,000 in the city when the battle for Mosul began on October 17.

The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the “caliphate”, even if the Islamic State would continue to control the territory to the west and south of the city, the largest it has reached. to be controlled in both Iraq and Syria.

Baghdadi left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and would hide in the border area between Iraq and Syria, according to US and Iraqi military sources.

There was no confirmation of Russian reports that he was killed in Syria.

“If you were a Daesh fighter (..) I don’t feel like you would feel like you were ruled by Baghdadi,” said Major General Rupert Jones, Britain’s deputy commander of the international coalition. , during a visit to eastern Mosul.

“I suspect you feel isolated. I suspect you feel abandoned and you know it will only end one way,” he added.

The Iraqi government initially hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the campaign took longer as militants reinforced their positions in civilian areas to fight back.

Militants are also retreating in Syria, mainly in the face of a Kurdish-led and US-backed coalition. Its capital, Raqqa, is besieged.

About 850,000 people, more than a third of Mosul’s pre-war population, have fled, seeking refuge with relatives or in camps, according to aid groups.

Jones said Iraqi forces had overcome mistrust in their relationship with the people of Mosul, which facilitated the city’s takeover by Islamic State in 2014.

“There was huge mistrust,” he said. “There seems to be a real mutual trust between the security forces and the local population, born of mutual respect, and I heard it several times today. It’s fantastic.”

Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, writing by Maher Chmaytelli; edited by Angus MacSwan and Richard Balmforth

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