Iraqi army helicopters strafed and fired rockets at Daesh positions in Mosul's Old City today as troops on the ground closed in on the strategic and symbolic prize of the Al-Nuri Mosque, where the self-declared Daesh caliphate was announced in 2014.
Federal Police troops had advanced past the train station in western Mosul closer to the mosque. A police commander said they were very close to taking control of it.
Residents fled from the area, carrying bags of belongings and picking their way through the wrecked buildings as shells and gunfire echoed behind them. Most of them were women and children.
"Federal Police and Rapid Response forces resumed their advance after halting operations due to bad weather. The troops have a target of retaking the rest of the Old City," a police spokesman said.
The battle to recapture Daesh's last stronghold in Iraq has now entered its sixth month. Iraqi government forces, backed by US advisers, artillery and air support and Iranian Shia jihadist proxies have cleared the east of the city and less than half of western Mosul and are now focused on controlling the Old City.
Recent fighting has targeted the centuries-old Al-Nuri Mosque, with its famous leaning minaret that gave the mosque and city its nickname of "Al-Hadba". Its capture would be a symbolic blow for Daesh as it was from there that self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of his caliphate in July 2014 after the hardline militants had seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.
US officials estimate about 2,000 Daesh fighters remain inside Iraq's second largest city, resisting with mortar fire, snipers and suicide car bombs that plough into army positions.
The black Islamic State flag still flew from the mosque's minaret earlier today.
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Federal Police, largely staffed by the Iran-backed Badr Organisation of Shia jihadists, moved in on foot from near the train station towards the Old City, trotting through rubble-filled streets.
Police commander General Khalid Al-Obedi told reporters on the frontline:
We are advancing toward the Old City. Their resistance is weakening. They are mostly using car bombs and that shows they are losing on the ground.
He barked orders into his radio as mortar rounds landed beyond his position.
Reporters saw an airstrike hit Daesh positions about 300 metres ahead on the frontline. Helicopters circling overhead fired rockets and raked the ground with machinegun fire.
Federal police also arrested Husam Sheet Al-Jabouri, the local chief of Diwan Al-Hisba, a Daesh police unit responsible for enforcing strict Daesh religious rules, in Mosul's Bab Al-Sijin area, a police statement said.
As fighting has entered into the narrow alleyways and densely populated parts of west Mosul, more residents are fleeing recaptured areas where food and water are scarce and homes are often caught in shelling.
Families with elderly relatives and children marched through western Mosul's muddy streets, past buildings pock-marked by bullet and bombs yesterday. Some said they had hardly eaten in weeks, scrambling for supplies handed out by a local aid agency.
"It is terrible, Daesh have destroyed us. There is no food, no bread. There is absolutely nothing," said one resident.
As many as 600,000 civilians may be caught inside the city with the militants. About 300,000 people have been displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas since October, including more than 100,000 since the military campaign in western Mosul began on 19 February, according to United Nations figures.
The last week has seen the highest level of displacement yet, with 32,000 displaced between March 12 and 15.