MOSUL, Iraq U.S.-backed Iraqi forces pressed an advance on neighborhoods under Islamic State control in Mosul on Monday as they seek to dislodge fighters entrenched in a central mosque before the holy month of Ramadan.
Seven months into the campaign to recapture Mosul, militants are besieged in its northwestern corner, home to the historic Old City center and the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque, where their black flag has been flying since June 2014.
“If we advance this quickly we can finish it in days,” First Lieutenant Nawfal al-Dhari told Reuters at a house turned into a temporary base in the western Islah al-Ziraie district, retaken by Iraqi forces three days ago.
“These are the dying breaths. They are completely surrounded.” He said the momentum was with Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) despite continued resistance from Islamic State fighters in the group’s last bastion in Iraq.
“If you trap a cat in a room, it will scratch,” he said.
Military commanders and intelligence officials say they aim to take control of the mosque before Ramadan starts at the end of this month even if there are still pockets under militant control.
“Our advance on a vast front has stunned the enemy and, God willing, we will achieve victory before Ramadan and announce the liberation of Mosul and people of Mosul from dirtiness of Daesh (Islamic State),” Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanmi, chief of staff, said in a video distributed by the Defence Ministry.
He was speaking on a visit to the frontlines in western Mosul. Ramadan is expected to start on May 27.
The mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” spanning swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, has symbolic and strategic value for Islamic State, officials say.
They hope its capture will deal a painful blow to fighter morale and bring an end to resistance in the city.
“The more they are besieged the harder they fight. They have nowhere to go,” soldier Faris Sallal said at another house in the Islah al-Ziraie district, where intermittent gunfire and the occasional boom of artillery echoed.
Flies swarmed over the charred remains of an Islamic State militant lying near a motorbike on a street in the district. Parked in the garage of another house on the same street was an armor-plated car which had been rigged with a suicide bomb.
In the nearby Ureibi district, which is partially controlled by Iraqi forces, a Reuters reporter saw the bloodied corpse of an Islamic State sniper in a children’s room on the upper floor of a house. Iraqi forces, now using the house as an outpost, said the sniper had been targeting advancing Iraqi troops.
The militants, outnumbered by Iraqi forces, have retaliated with suicide car bombs and snipers embedded among hundreds of thousands of civilians. Many local people have been killed under heavy bombardment and vital supplies are scarce, with some civilians being forced to eat weeds in order to survive.
The Iraqi government said last week the number of people fleeing Mosul had more than doubled to about 10,000 a day.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Janet Lawrence)