Iraqi government forces set their sights on reaching the Grand Mosque in Mosul's Old City yesterday and the prime minister said the battle to drive Daesh from its last urban stronghold in Iraq was reaching its final stages.
Losing the city would be a huge blow to Daesh as it has served as the group's de facto capital since its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself head of a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria from the Grand Mosque in the summer of 2014.
Troops were also concentrating on capturing the Iron Bridge linking eastern Mosul with the Old City on the western side of the Tigris river, where Daesh fighters are preparing to make a last stand.
Heavy fighting was reported around the Mosul Museum by journalists and combatants. A Daesh suicide car bomb exploded near the museum.
The intense combat, much of it street-by-street, marked a decisive stage in the battle for Mosul which started on Oct. 17 last year.
As well as waging jihad in Iraq and Syria, the militants have also inspired attacks in cities in Europe, Africa and elsewhere that have killed hundreds of civilians.
"Our forces are advancing towards their targets. The main objective will be seizing the Iron Bridge and after that we will start an operation to seal off the area near the bridge to clear it from Daesh fighters," said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry's Rapid Response units, one of the elite forces spearheading the offensive, using an Arab acronym for the group.
"We will be heading towards the old market in Bab a
l-Tob and advance deeper to reach the location of Mosul's Grand Mosque." The capture of the mosque would be a huge symbolic victory as well as a concrete gain but that may take some time yet. The attacking forces faced sniper and mortar fire as well as the threat of suicide car bombs and grenade-dropping drones.
Iraqi officers said cloudy weather was hampering air cover yesterday morning.
Securing the Iron Bridge would mean Iraqi forces hold three of the five bridges in Mosul that span the Tigris, all of which have been damaged by the militants and U.S.-led air strikes. In Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said: "Daesh become day after day surrounded inside a tight area and they are in their final days." "Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday night, he warned the insurgents that they must surrender or be killed although he also pledged to treat the militants' families fairly.
However, many hard days of fighting could still lie ahead as government forces try to make headway in the streets and narrow alleyways of the Old City. Daesh fighters have booby-trapped houses, and government forces will also be fighting amongst civilians, ruling out the extensive use of air and artillery support. As many as 600,000 civilians are still trapped with the militants inside Mosul. The Ministry of Immigration and Displacement said on Tuesday that in recent days, almost 13,000 displaced people from western Mosul had been given assistance and temporary accommodation each day, adding to the 200,000 already displaced.
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