Baghdad, Mosul – An Iraqi commander predicted that the embattled city of Mosul will be completely captured from the ISIS terrorists by May.
The army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanmi expected the success despite resistance from militants in the densely populated Old City district.
The battle should be completed “in a maximum of three weeks”, he was quoted as saying by state-run newspaper al-Sabah on Sunday.
A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support for the offensive in Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, which fell to the militants in June 2014.
ISIS has lost most of the city since the offensive began in October and is now surrounded in the northwestern districts, including the historic Old City center.
The United Nations believes up to half a million people remain in the area, 400,000 of whom are in the Old City with little food, water and medicine.
The militants have dug in among the civilians, often launching deadly counter-attacks to repel forces closing in on the Old City’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque, from where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a so-called “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi forces estimate the number of ISIS militants still in Mosul at 200 to 300, mostly foreigners, down from nearly 6,000 when the offensive started. They are still capable of deadly counter-attacks on the tens of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary groups arrayed against them.
A Federal Police brigade commander and 18 other members of the Interior Ministry force were killed in attacks on two positions at the edge of the Old City on Friday, military sources said.
Federal Police took back the positions on Saturday but the ministry has sacked a commander for failing to fend off the counter-attacks, the sources said.
The Federal Police said it had since strengthened fortifications around the Old City with concrete blocks to prevent suicide attacks on its forces.
The US-trained Counter Terrorism Service and Federal Police are the main forces fighting inside Mosul. Regular Iraqi army units are taking part in battles outside the city, alongside Shi’ite volunteers trained and armed by Iran, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Sunni tribes.
The total number of fighters aligned against ISIS in Mosul exceeds 100,000.
ISIS announced attacks on Sunday the Shi’ite paramilitary northwest of Mosul and on an Iraqi army position in Akashat, near the Syrian border, an area where its leader, al-Baghdadi, is believed to be hiding, according to the Iraqi military.
The Iraqi army said its ground and air forces pushed back the attack, killing eight militants.
Even if defeated in Mosul, ISIS will remain in control of vast swathes of land in the border area with Syria.