Iraqi commanders say Islamic State fighters now control only 12 sq km of territory, as US says end of battle is near
Iraqi forces have dislodged Islamic State from all but 12 square kilometres of Mosul, a military spokesman said on Tuesday, after planes dropped leaflets into the city telling civilians the battle was nearly won.
Seven months into the US-backed campaign, the militants now control only a few districts in the western half of Mosul including the Old City, where Islamic State is expected to make its last stand.
The Iraqi government is pushing to declare victory by the holy month of Ramadan, expected to begin on 27 May, even if pockets of resistance remain in the Old City, according to military commanders.
"The enemy is on the brink of total defeat in Mosul," US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for the US-led coalition backing Iraqi forces, told a news conference in Baghdad.
With the help of advisers and air strikes by the coalition, Iraqi forces have made rapid gains since opening a new front in the northwest of Mosul earlier this month, closing in on the Old City.
The Old City's warren of densely packed houses and alleys is the most complex battleground and home to the al-Nuri mosque from which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria in 2014.
"We reassure everyone that... in a very short time, God willing, we will declare the liberation and clearing of west Mosul and raise the Iraqi flag over the Old City," said spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool.
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Outnumbered, the militants have snipers embedded among the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in west Mosul. Many people have been killed by militants or heavy bombardments.
The leaflet dropped over Mosul also ordered civilians to immediately stop using any vehicle to avoid being mistaken for militants who have fought back against Iraqi forces with suicide car bombs and motorcycle bombs.
"Our airforce and Iraqi military planes will strike any vehicle that moves on the streets of these districts from the evening of May 15 until their liberation," read a copy of the leaflet seen by Reuters. "The decisive hour has approached."
They said the number of Islamic State militants still fighting was shrinking, and they were increasingly disorganised and short of arms, ammunition and equipment following months of siege.
Yes there will be remnants of Daesh inside the Old City, but it will be as easy as hunting rabbits to take them down.
- Iraqi colonel
"If we advance this quickly we can finish it in days," First Lieutenant Nawfal al-Dhari told Reuters at a house turned into a temporary base in the western Islah al-Ziraie district, retaken by Iraqi forces three days ago.
"These are their dying breaths. They are completely surrounded."
He said the momentum was with Iraq's elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), the US-trained special forces who have led the campaign to retake the country's second city, despite continued resistance from Islamic State fighters.
"If you trap a cat in a room, it will scratch," he said.
"Daesh are losing the ability to fight back. It's obvious they are blundering. We want to make the Old City a closed death casket for Daesh," an Iraqi army intelligence colonel said, using an Arabic term for Islamic State.
"Yes there will be remnants of Daesh inside the Old City, but it will be as easy as hunting rabbits to take them down."
The warren of densely packed houses and alleys, with Roman, Ottoman and Persian traces, has proved a complex battleground for Iraqi troops against a skilled enemy willing to use civilians as shields.
Iraqi forces have tried to open up several fronts in an attempt to split IS, who have had two years to prepare their defences.
Displaced Iraqis flee during a fight between Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) forces and Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq (Reuters)
US-backed air strikes in the tightly-packed neighbourhoods have been made more difficult, government forces say, by their efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
The Iraqi government said last week the number of people fleeing Mosul had more than doubled to about 10,000 a day.
"Our advance on a vast front has stunned the enemy and, God willing, we will achieve victory before Ramadan and announce the liberation of Mosul and people of Mosul from the dirtiness of Daesh," Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanmi, chief of staff, said in a video distributed by the Defence Ministry.
He was speaking on a visit to the front lines in western Mosul. Ramadan is expected to start on 27 May.
'They have nowhere to go'
"The more they are besieged the harder they fight. They have nowhere to go," soldier Faris Sallal said in the Islah al-Ziraie district, which echoed with intermittent gunfire and the occasional boom of artillery.
Flies swarmed over the charred remains of an IS militant lying near a motorbike. In the garage of a house on the same street was an armour-plated car rigged with a suicide bomb.
In the nearby Ureibi district, partly controlled by Iraqi forces, a Reuters reporter saw the bloodied corpse of an Islamic State sniper in a children's room on the upper floor of a house.
Iraqi forces, now using the house as an outpost, said the sniper had been targeting advancing Iraqi troops.
Colonel Mohammed al-Taie of the Operation Command in the surrounding Nineveh province said Iraqi forces were advancing rapidly north of Mosul.
"Our intelligence conclusions based on insider sources and drone surveillance indicate undisputedly that Daesh fighters are less organised now and lack the resources to keep fighting," he said.