MOSUL/BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi forces gained fresh ground in door-to-door fighting in the Old City of Mosul, a military spokesman said on Monday, as the U.S.-backed offensive to capture Islamic State's de facto capital in Iraq entered its seventh month.
A Reuters correspondent saw thick smoke billowing over the Old City, near the Grand al-Nuri Mosque, from where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a "caliphate" spanning parts of Iraq and Syria.
Heavy exchanges of gunfire and mortar rounds could be heard from the neighborhoods facing the old city across the Tigris river that bisects Mosul into a western and eastern sides.
The war between Islamic State militants and Iraqi forces is taking a heavy toll on several hundred thousand civilians trapped inside the city, with severely malnourished babies reaching hospitals in government-held areas.
Iraqi Federal Police forces "are engaged in difficult, house-to-house clashes with Daesh fighters inside the Old City," a media officer from these units told Reuters.
Drones are extensively being used to locate and direct air strikes on the militants who are dug in the middle of civilians, he said.
Troops have had the famous centuries-old al-Nuri Mosque leaning minaret in their sights since last month, as capturing it would mark a symbolic victory over the insurgents. The Iraqi advance has struggled to make progress in that time, however, in part because densely populated sections of west Mosul make the movement of men and vehicles difficult.
A police spokesman said the troops were closing in on the mosque without indicating the remaining distance.
"Iraqi security forces continue to progress as they liberate the western side of Mosul," U.S. Army Major General Joseph Martin, head of ground forces for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said by telephone earlier this month.
He declined to say whether the militants would be defeated rather within weeks or months, saying: "It's hard to tell because the terrain changes literally every day."
"Some days like yesterday (there was) significant amount of progress, other days there is not much progress but progress nevertheless," he said.
"You cannot get vehicles in there, so it's gotta be a dismounted operation," Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe, a senior coalition commander, said of the Old City. That "makes it very difficult for any offensive manoeuvre in there, but it makes it very easy to defend," Uribe told AFP.
"Sometimes, 50 metres (yards) is a great day," he said of the Iraqi advance.
REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Their progress has been slow as about 400,000 civilians, or a quarter of Mosul's pre-war population, are trapped in neighborhoods still under control of the militants. Many Mosul residents have also lingered in homes along the front lines, reluctant to leave the city.
"I don't want to go. I've lived all my life in this house," said 72-year pensioner Abdelraziq Abdelkarim, a former studio photographer, sitting next to his handicapped son and a grandchild.
More 300,000 have fled fighting since the offensive operation started on Oct. 17, with strong air and ground support from a U.S.-led coalition. Civilians on the ground have also been caught in the fighting, both deliberately targeted by ISIS fighters and struck by coalition and Iraqi artillery and airstrikes.
Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, was captured by the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim fighters in mid 2014.
Government forces, including army, police and elite counter terrorism units have taken back most of it, including the half that lies east of the Tigris river.
The militants are now surrounded in the northwestern quarter including the historic Old City, using booby traps, sniper and mortar fire against the assailants.
Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition supporting them "are nearing the end of the operation to recapture Mosul," Patrick Martin, Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told AFP.
But "the final neighbourhoods will be the most difficult to recapture, especially the Old City and the remaining neighbourhoods in northwestern Mosul," Martin said.
Police on Sunday reported a toxic gas attack on its troops that caused no deaths. It also said the militants were increasingly using suicide motorbikes attacks.
The narrow alleyways restricts the use of suicide cars by the militants and tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees by the government forces.
REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
The United Nations said last month that 12 people, including women and children, had been treated for possible exposure to chemical weapons agents in Mosul. But Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, said days later there was no evidence for that.
The fighting has killed several thousand among civilians and fighters on both sides, according to aid organizations.
Residents who have managed to escape from the Old City have said there is almost nothing to eat but flour mixed with water and boiled wheat grain. What little food remains is too expensive for most residents to afford, or kept for Islamic State members and their supporters.
(By Ulf Laessing and Ahmed Rasheed; writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Alison Williams)