Maher Chmaytelli in Mosul
Iraqi forces slowed their advance yesterday through the last streets in Mosul controlled by Isil where militants and civilians are packed in densely together, a commander said.
While Iraqi commanders predicted final victory in Mosul this week, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced they had begun an assault on Isil’s Syrian redoubt in the Old City of Raqqa.
The Iraqi military has pushed insurgents into a shrinking rectangle no more than 300 metres by 500 metres beside the Tigris river in Mosul, but resistance has been fierce.
The Rapid Response Division, an elite Interior Ministry unit, called in air strikes just 50 metres away from their targets, and the fighting got close enough at one point for the militants to toss a hand grenade at the troops.
It was from the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque that, three years ago, leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria. Forces retook the mosque last Thursday, prompting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare an end to the group’s “state of falsehood”.
The number of militants fighting in Mosul, by far the biggest city it has ever controlled, has dwindled from thousands at the start of the US-backed offensive more than eight months ago to a couple of hundred now, according to the Iraqi military.
A commander from the Rapid Response Division estimated more than 10,000 civilians remained trapped inside the area under militant control, including people brought from other areas as human shields.
They are trapped with little food, water or medicine amid the Old City’s maze of narrow alleyways, according to residents who have managed to escape.
“The presence of civilians has affected the troops’ advance a lot. The directions from the commander-in-chief of the armed forces are to advance slowly to preserve civilians’ lives and this is what we are doing,” the officer said on state TV without being named. “The area is small but the advance today is very good, relatively.”
He said the progress had also been slowed by a high number of improvised explosives planted in streets and buildings.
A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support to the offensive, which includes Iraq’s army and counter-terrorism service in a multi-pronged attack.
With Mosul gone, the group’s territory in Iraq will be limited to a few areas west and south of the city where some tens of thousands of civilians live.
Iraqi authorities are planning a week of nationwide celebrations to mark the end of the offensive, and Mr Abadi is expected to visit Mosul to formally declare victory.
In neighbouring Syria, a US-backed coalition force said it fired on two small sections of the historic Rafiqah Wall in the Old City of Raqqa, allowing it to overcome Isil defences.