By Maher Chmaytelli
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s military pushed deeper into Mosul’s Old City on Wednesday, taking two more districts from Islamic State and bringing it closer to total control of the city.
The army’s 16th infantry division captured Hadarat al-Saada and al-Ahmadiyya, the military said in a statement. The areas are northwest of the historic Grand al-Nuri Mosque which the militants destroyed last week.
Islamic State still controls the mosque’s grounds and about half of the territory in the Old City, its last redoubt in Mosul.
“Fifty percent of this area has been liberated, al-Mashada and al-Ahmadiyya and al-Saada,” Major General Jabbar al-Darraji told Iraqi state television.
“Our troops are now moving towards Farouq Street,” he said, referring to the Old City’s main north-south thoroughfare.
Federal police and elite units of the Counter-Terrorism Service have also been fighting inside the district’s maze of narrow alleyways since the battle began 10 days ago.
A U.S.-led international coalition is providing air and ground support in the eight-month-old offensive.
Authorities expect the battle to end in the coming days, though the advance remains arduous.
Federal policemen walked through piles of rubble amid wrecked houses on Wednesday to reach the frontline, southwest of al-Nuri mosque. A Reuters correspondent said they exchanged mortars and sniper fire with militants.
The Old City’s stone buildings date mostly from the medieval period. They include market stalls, a few mosques and churches, and small houses built and rebuilt on top of each other over the ages.
The minaret of the Ziwani mosque, which is cleared of militants, has been partially destroyed, and the cross had been removed from the bell tower of Shamoon al-Safa church, a Reuters correspondent said.
The military estimates up to 350 militants are dug in among civilians in wrecked houses and crumbling infrastructure. They are trying to slow the advance of Iraqi forces by laying booby traps and using suicide bombers and snipers.
Five IS fighters tried to flee across the Tigris River to the eastern side of Mosul but were killed by security forces, the military said on Wednesday.
Those residents who have escaped the Old City say many of the civilians trapped behind Islamic State lines – put at 50,000 by the Iraqi military – are in a desperate situation with little food, water or medicines.
Darraji, the army general, said one of his soldiers had been killed when he seized a militant wearing a suicide vest amid a crowd of fleeing civilians.
“The heroic fighter was martyred, protecting the lives of many citizens,” he said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)