Iraqi forces began an assault Sunday on Mosul’s Old City , attempting to break into a maze of narrow streets and alleyways where hundreds of hardened Islamic State militants are expected to make a last bloody stand.
Clouds of smoke rose above the historic city center in the early hours of the morning as a barrage of artillery and U.S.-led coalition jets struck militant targets. Helicopters strafed the area as elite Iraqi counterterrorism forces prepared to storm it on foot.
“They are besieged, they will fight to the death,” said Master Sgt. Latif Omran, as he waited with his unit for a bulldozer to break down the barricades that mark the front line.
Intense gunfire broke out when they entered, as the militants used mortars and snipers to attempt to hold them off.
Over the past eight months the militants have been gradually corralled into an area of little more than a square mile on the western banks of the Tigris River.
The loss of Mosul, once the largest city the militants controlled, will strike a huge symbolic blow to Islamic State. It was in the city’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the formation of a caliphate three years ago.
Now the group has lost the majority of its territory in Iraq, while its Syrian capital of Raqqa is also under attack.
However, few expect an easy fight for the last few inches of Mosul. The tiny lanes of the Old City make the terrain particularly challenging for Iraqi forces, which can’t enter many areas with their armored vehicles.
Islamic State militants are expected touse suicide motorcycle bombs, said Brig. Gen. Haider al-Obaidi, a counterterrorism commander. He estimated that around 300 to 400 militant fighters remain, though he said it was impossible to say for certain. Other Iraqi commanders have put the number at double that.
Iraq’s counterterrorism forces led Sunday’s assault, joined by police and army forces. The elite units have suffered a 40 percent casualty rate since the beginning of the operation, according to U.S. figures.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Loveday Morris, Mustafa Sali