MOSUL: Iraqi army helicopters strafed and rocketed Daesh (ISIS) positions inside Mosul’s Old City Sunday as ground troops fought fierce street battles to close in on the strategic prize of the Al-Nuri Mosque.
An airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition backing Iraq forces in their campaign to retake Mosul also killed six foreign militant commanders in the west, including a Russian who was a senior Daesh leader, Iraq’s Defense Ministry said.
Federal Police troops Sunday advanced past the train station in western Mosul close to the mosque.
Residents fled from the area, carrying suitcases and 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 U.S. advisers, artillery and air support, have cleared the east and 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. Its capture would be a blow for Daesh as it was from there that Baghdadi declared himself head of his self-proclaimed caliphate.
U.S. 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 Daesh flag still flew from the mosque’s minaret Sunday.
Iraq’s Defense Ministry said in a statement a coalition airstrike destroyed a command center, killing Russian leader Abdel-Kareem al-Rusi, head of the Tareq Bin Ziyad brigade, as well as a British-Algerian, a French-Syrian, a Turkish commander and two Moroccans.
Federal Police moved in on foot from near the train station toward the Old City, forging ahead through rubble-filled streets.
Police commander Gen. Khalid al-Obedi told reporters on the front line: “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 shouted orders into his radio as mortar rounds landed beyond his position.
Reporters saw an airstrike hit Daesh positions 300 meters ahead on the front line. Helicopters circling overhead fired rockets and raked the ground with machine gun fire.
Federal police also arrested Husam Sheet al-Jabouri, the local chief of Diwan al-Hisba, a Daesh unit responsible for enforcing strict Islamic rules, in Mosul’s Bab al-Sijin area, a police statement said.
Families with elderly relatives and children marched through western Mosul’s muddy streets, past buildings pock-marked by bullet and bombs Saturday. 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,” one resident said.