Iraqi government forces battling the Islamic State in Mosul’s western side evacuated hundreds of civilians from the city centre on Tuesday, as troop progress slowed down faced with strong resistance from the militants, Iraqi officials said.
“Our forces evacuated hundreds of civilians to prevent terrorists from using them as human shields, while our troops are pushing inside the old city centre to recapture the al-Nuri Mosque,” Lt. Gen. Raid Shakir Jawdat, commander of the federal police forces, said in a statement, Xinhua reported.
“Dozens of federal police snipers positioned themselves atop building tops in the neighbourhoods of the old city centre around the al-Nuri Mosque,” Jawdat said.
The troops have been fighting street by street and house by house to recapture the historical al-Nuri Mosque in the middle of Mosul’s old city centre, but were slowed by heavy resistance from the IS militants and the presence of some 500,000 people living in old homes with narrow alleys.
The mosque with its famous leaning minaret, which gave the city its nickname “al-Hadbaa” or “the hunchback”, has a symbolic value as it was the place where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the cross-border “caliphate” in large areas in Iraq and Syria in his sole public appearance in July 2014.
“The battles to liberate Mosul’s western side is progressing slowly caused by fear of harming civilian lives, in addition to the presence of increasing number of Daesh (the IS) snipers in Mosul’s city centre, with its narrow alleys,” Defence Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool told a news conference in eastern Mosul.
Meanwhile, commandos of the Counter-Terrorism Service forces freed the neighborhood of Risala and residential buildings of the adjacent Nablus neighbourhood west of the old city centre after days of heavy clashes with the IS militants, Abdul-Amir Yarallah from the Joint Operations Command said in a statement.
Elite troops continued their heavy clashes against the IS militants in several nearby neighbourhoods, as they advanced closer to Mosul’s western edge and densely populated old city centre, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to be still trapped under the IS rule.
The fierce battles brought the total number of civilians who left their homes in Mosul’s both eastern and western sides to 415,000 since the beginning of the military offensive in October to reclaim the IS’s largest stronghold in Iraq, according to Jasim al-Attiyah, deputy minister of the Iraqi Migration and Displaced Ministry.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, announced the start of an offensive on February 19 to drive extremist militants out of the western side of Mosul.
Late in January, Abadi declared the liberation of Mosul’s eastern side, or the left bank of Tigris, after over 100 days of fighting IS militants.
However, Mosul’s western part, with its narrow streets and a population between 750,000 and 800,000, appears to be a bigger challenge to Iraqi forces.
Mosul, 400 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, has been under IS control since June 2014, when government forces abandoned their posts and fled, enabling IS militants to take control of parts of Iraq’s northern and western regions.