Iraqi forces battling ISIS in Mosul edged into the Old City and around the al Nuri mosque on Friday trying to seal off a main road to prevent militants sending in suicide bombers to attack their positions.
The mosque was where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in 2014.
The area could see some of the toughest fighting of the battle for the northern metropolis. Iraqi leaders say the battle to recapture Mosul is reaching its final stages, trumpeting each gain made against the militants.
Iraqi forces launched an operation on February 19 to retake the west side of Mosul — the most populous area still held by the ISIS group — and have retaken several neighborhoods.
Besides the bad weather, the Iraqi advances are being slowed by stiff resistance as militants retreat into the Old City, where street fighting is expected in the narrow alleyways and around the mosque.
A helicopter fired rockets into the area and heavy gunfire and mortar blasts echoed as troops made forays in districts near the Nuri mosque, where ISIS’ black jihadist flag hangs from its leaning minaret.
“Federal police and Rapid Response units imposed their complete control over the Al-Basha Mosque… and the Bab al-Saray market in the Old City,” federal police Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, the commander of the federal police, said in a statement.
Residents trapped inside the Old City with the jihadists describe a desperate siege with widespread hunger, destruction from US-led air strikes and civilians living in fear of revenge as the ultra-violent group gets cornered.
As the battle gets tougher, Iraqi forces have begun to besiege the jihadists, increasing civilian suffering, however, as food cannot get in and medical supplies run low.
Residents reached by phone still inside the Old City said no food had been brought in for months, and people were surviving on lentils and other basic goods they had stocked.
“It’s been four months that we haven’t eaten fruit and vegetables. The kids ask for just a piece of chocolate, but there are only lentils, and even these are running out,” one resident said, asking to remain anonymous.
Many are streaming out of western Mosul neighborhoods recaptured by the government, many hungry and traumatized by living under ISIS’ rule.
As many as 600,000 civilians are caught with the militants inside Mosul, which Iraqi forces sealed off from the remaining territory that ISIS controls in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi forces include army, special forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shi’ite militias.
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, United Nations figures show.
The last week has seen the highest level of displacement yet, with 32,000 displaced between March 12 and 15.