Is­lamic State is sur­rounded in Iraqi city

Gov­ern­ment forces storm Mo­sul’s old town as mil­i­tants make a last stand.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los Bu­los is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

MO­SUL, Iraq — Iraqi forces bat­tled their way into Mo­sul’s Old City on Sun­day, start­ing a dif­fi­cult fight for the last neigh­bor­hoods still in the hands of Is­lamic State.

As the sun rose, a mas­sive bar­rage shrouded parts of the Old City in smoke. It was a pre­lude to the ar­rival of black Humvees from Iraq’s Counter-Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice, an elite U.S.-trained force that was at­tack­ing from the district’s west­ern flank.

The ji­hadis have steadily lost ground over the eight months of the Mo­sul of­fen­sive. They are now con­tained in one square mile of what was once Is­lamic State’s Iraqi cap­i­tal, which the group took in a blitz of­fen­sive more than three years ago.

The group’s de­feat in Mo­sul is more than sym­bolic. Not only would it have lost all of its ma­jor ur­ban cen­ters in Iraq, but the loss also would sig­nify the be­gin­ning of the end of its crum­bling “caliphate.”

But the bat­tle prom­ises to be a hard one.

Iraqi forces will have to aban­don their ar­mored ve­hi­cles as they storm the Old City’s nar­row walk­ways, while strug­gling to dis­tin­guish friend from foe among the es­ti­mated 100,000 to 150,000 peo­ple still trapped in the area.

The district’s struc­tures are also thought to be frail, forc­ing mil­i­tary plan­ners to avoid us­ing heavy ord­nance for fear of hav­ing build­ings col­lapse onto civil­ians hid­ing in­side.

Mean­while, sur­rounded and with no chance to es­cape, the mil­i­tants are ex­pected to give no quar­ter in what is their last stand in the city.

The fe­roc­ity of their re­sis­tance could al­ready be seen on Sun­day.

Over­head, planes from the U.S.-led coali­tion lobbed bombs on Is­lamic State po­si­tions as troops stacked up for the ini­tial thrust.

But the mo­ment bull­doz­ers be­gan breach­ing Is­lamic State bar­ri­cades at the Old City’s out­skirts, the ji­hadis coun­tered with heavy ma­chine gun fire. Then the tell­tale whis­tles of mor­tar shells could be heard, sec­onds be­fore they landed on the Iraqi troops’ rear lines with pow­er­ful crashes.

“It’s rain­ing mor­tars,” joked one sol­dier af­ter the fourth shell had fallen, the ex­plo­sions rat­tling the blown-out win­dows of an aban­doned flour mill.

Be­fore noon, at a med­i­cal sta­tion two miles from the front line, the first ca­su­al­ties be­gan to trickle in; all were sol­diers so far.

Yet it is the civil­ians trapped in­side who are ex­pected to bear the brunt of the hos­til­i­ties, aid or­ga­ni­za­tions warn.

In re­cent days, Is­lamic State snipers have cut down hun­dreds of res­i­dents flee­ing the car­nage around them.

“This will be a ter­ri­fy­ing time for ... peo­ple still trapped in Mo­sul’s Old City and now at risk of get­ting caught up in the fierce street fight­ing to come,” Nora Love, act­ing Iraq di­rec­tor for the In­ter­na­tional Rescue Com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment on Sun­day.

“Both coali­tion and Iraqi forces must do ev­ery­thing in their power to keep civil­ians safe dur­ing these fi­nal stages of the bat­tle for Mo­sul,” she said.

Ah­mad al-Rubaye AFP/Getty Images

IRAQI FORCES ad­vance to­ward Mo­sul’s Old City, the last district held by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

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