Rain hampers Iraqi forces' push on
Islamic State-held Mosul Old City
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[March 16, 2017]
By Patrick Markey
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Heavy rain slowed
Iraqi government forces battling Islamic State on Thursday around
Mosul's Old City, where militants holed up in narrow alleyways and homes
resisted with sniper fire, suicide attacks and car bombs.
Troops from the federal police and elite Rapid Response units were about
500 m (yards) from the al-Nuri Mosque from where Islamic State leader
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria in
The black jihadist flag was clearly visible draped from the mosque's
famous leaning minaret.
The army and security forces have made significant gains in recent days
in the battle that started in October, seizing a main bridge over the
Tigris river and advancing towards the mosque.
"We are holding positions we took yesterday. There is a lot of
resistance in that area with snipers and car bombs," Federal Police
Major General Haider Dhirgham told Reuters on Thursday.
The capture of al-Nuri Mosque would be a huge symbolic victory as well
as a concrete gain.
"It's important for them, it's where they declared their state,"
Mosul has been the hardline group's main urban stronghold in Iraq but
they have steadily lost ground since the offensive began and Iraqi
leaders say the battle is reaching its final stages.
Earlier on Thursday, government forces had been attempting to encircle
the Old City to bottle up Islamic State fighters. Several more areas of
western Mosul had been recaptured, including the hospital, over
Wednesday and Thursday morning but officers said progress was slowed by
car bombs and booby-traps in houses and alleyways. Then the advance was
put on hold due to bad weather.
Islamic State hit back with sporadic attacks on government positions,
including mortar fire. Government forces responded with mortars and
helicopter gunships strafed militant positions from above.
Police said they had killed nine militants who tried to counter-attack
one of their positions with rocket-propelled grenades.
A Federal Police officer said commanders were meeting to adjust their
plans for tackling the Old City.
"The new offensive plans should adapt with the difficult terrain of the
complicated, narrow alleys," he said. "The tight roads prevent us from
using armored vehicles and that will definitely leave our soldiers
vulnerable to enemy fire. New plans under study will tackle this issue."
The need to ensure the safety of civilians, many of them hungry from a
lack of provisions and traumatized by living under Islamic State's harsh
rule, was also a priority.
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Displaced Iraqis make their way to get into Hamam al-Alil camp, on a
rainy day, south of Mosul, Iraq March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
As many as 6,000 Islamic State fighters remained in Mosul, including
other Aran nationalities and foreigners, Dhirgham said, talking inside
the city at a police forward base as refugees trudged through the muddy
streets and wrecked houses.
Islamic State suicide bombers had driven explosive-rigged cars at
troops, he said. There had been three such attacks on Thursday
morning. Troops has also seized buildings in which suicide vehicles
were being prepared.
"The enemy ... has started to set fire to houses which means that
are on the retreat. They have destroyed homes and have destroyed
families," Dhirgham said.
Mosul has served as Islamic State's de facto capital since Baghdadi
proclaimed himself head of a caliphate in July 2014.
Its recapture by the government would drive the remnants of the
Islamic State army into the hinterlands. It is also under pressure
in neighboring Syria, where three separate forces are advancing on
Raqqa, the main Syrian city under Islamic State control.
As well as waging jihad in Iraq and Syria, the militants have
inspired attacks in cities in Europe, Africa and elsewhere that have
killed hundreds of civilians.
U.S. and other Western countries have been providing air, artillery
and other support to the Mosul offensive, reflecting the
international concern over the Islamic State threat.
However, the presence of tens of thousands of civilians in Islamic
State-held areas means that simply pulverizing them is a risky
proposition. Thousands of residents have escaped to government lines
in recent days but it has been impossible to tally the number of
"We will liberate civilians before liberating the land," Dhirgham
"I expect the liberation of Mosul completely in one month. I will
not tell you one or two weeks, because that's not true, but within
one or two months it will be completely liberated."
(Additonal reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Angus
MacSwan in Erbil; Editing by Alison Williams)
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