Iraqi forces near Mosul mosque where IS declared ‘caliphate’

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MOSUL: Elite Iraqi forces said they were battling house by house in the Old City of Mosul on Saturday, inching towards the mosque where the militant Islamic State group proclaimed its “caliphate” in 2014.

Iraq began an operation on Feb 19 to retake west Mosul, which is the last major militant Islamic State group 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 IS in the ancient central district.

“Our forces are 800 metres from the mosque,” said Captain Firas al-Zuwaidi, spokesman for the interior ministry’s elite Rapid Response Force.

He was referring to the Al Nuri Mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the cross-border “caliphate” spanning jihadist-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 IS, further complicated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of civilians believed to have stayed on under jihadist rule.

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.

“IS resistance is tough in this area, the streets are too narrow for large vehicles, and the weather is poor. IS is exploiting these factors as part of their defence,” Anagnostos said.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 IS following months of losses in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

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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