MOSUL, Iraq (AFP) – Iraqi forces launched an assault yesterday to retake Mosul’s Old City, the last district still held by the Islamic State (IS) group three years after the extremists seized the northern city and declared their “caliphate”.
Military commanders told AFP the assault had begun at dawn, after overnight air strikes by the US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces, and that the extremists were putting up fierce resistance.
The push into Mosul’s Old City – a densely populated warren of narrow alleyways on the western side of Mosul – marks the culmination of a months-long campaign by Iraq forces to retake IS’s last major urban stronghold in the country.
The loss of Mosul would mark the effective end of the Iraqi portion of the cross-border “caliphate” that IS declared in the summer of 2014, after seizing control of large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
A military statement announced the start of the assault, saying the army, counter-terrorism forces and federal police “launched an attack on the Old City”.
Machinegun fire crackled and plumes of smoke from missiles rose above the Old City yesterday morning.
Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a senior commander with the Counter-Terrorism Service, said the operation was advancing slowly “to preserve civilian lives as we breach the enemy’s defence lines.
“Our forces have moved in on foot because the alleys are very narrow,” he said. “The strategy has changed compared to other operations. There is no room for our vehicles to manoeuvre and there are many civilians.”
Surrounded by Iraqi forces on three sides and blocked on the other by the Tigris River that runs through Mosul, the extremists had no choice but a fight to the finish, he said.
“This is the last episode of the Daesh show,” Assadi said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
“It’s our most difficult operation. Fighting is fierce because it’s their last stronghold… They have nowhere to flee.”
He said he hoped the operation could be concluded before Eid – the festival marking the end of the month of Ramadhan, expected around June 25 or 26 – “but I think it is going to take longer”.
Iraqi forces launched the battle for Mosul – the country’s second-largest city – in October, retaking the eastern part of the city in January and starting the operation for its western part the next month.
The United Nations said Friday that IS may be holding more than 100,000 civilians as human shields in the Old City.