MOSUL: Iraqi forces launched an assault Sunday to retake Mosul’s Old City, the last district still held by Daesh three years after the militants seized the northern city.
Military commanders told AFP the assault had begun at dawn, after overnight airstrikes by the US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces and that the militants 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 monthslong campaign by Iraq forces to retake Daesh’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 Daesh declared in the summer of 2014, after seizing control of large parts of Iraq and neighboring 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 on Sunday morning.
Staff Lt. Gen. Abdulghani Assadi, a senior commander with the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), said the operation was advancing slowly “to preserve civilian lives as we breach the enemy’s defense 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 maneuver 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 militants had no choice but a fight to the finish, he said.
“This is the last episode of the Daesh show,” Assadi said.
“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 holy month of Ramadan, 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 UN said Friday that Daesh may be holding more than 100,000 civilians as human shields in the Old City.
The UN refugee agency’s representative in Iraq Bruno Geddo said Daesh had been capturing civilians and forcing them into the Old City.
“We know that ISIS moved them with them as they left… locations where the fighting was going on,” he told reporters in Geneva, using another acronym for Daesh.
“These civilians are basically held as human shields in the Old City.”
With virtually no food, water or electricity left in the area, civilians are “living in an increasingly worsening situation of penury and panic,” he said.
Since the battle to retake Mosul began, an estimated 862,000 people have been displaced from the city, although 195,000 have since returned, mainly to its eastern side.
It was in Mosul in July 2014 that Daesh chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance, to urge Muslims worldwide to move to the recently proclaimed “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.
The militants have since lost most of the territory they once controlled in the face of US-backed offensives in Iraq and in Syria, where an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces are advancing on their last Syrian bastion Raqqa.
It was not clear how many Daesh militants remained in Mosul, where many foreign fighters have joined local militants since the city was taken.
“The locals in Daesh will shave their beards and try to blend in with the civilians as they always do,” Assadi of the CTS said. “The foreigners will fight hard and eventually get killed.”
The fall of Mosul was the worst defeat that Iraqi forces suffered in the war with Daesh and regaining it would cap a major turnaround for security forces, who broke and ran despite outnumbering the militants who attacked the city in 2014.