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Iraqi forces battle to edge Islamic State militants.



Iraqi special
forces and police fought Islamic State militants to edge closer to the
al-Nuri mosque in western Mosul on Wednesday, tightening their control
around the landmark site in the battle to recapture Iraq’s second city,
military commanders said.

The
close-quarters fighting is focused on the Old City surrounding the
mosque where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a
caliphate nearly three years ago across territory controlled by the
group in both Iraq and Syria.

Thousands
of residents have fled from IS-held areas inside Mosul, the militants’
biggest remaining stronghold in Iraq. But tens of thousands more are
still trapped inside homes, caught in the fighting, shelling and air
strikes as Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition advance in the
west.

Helicopters circling west
Mosul strafed Islamic State positions beyond the city train station, the
site of heavy back-and-forth fighting in recent days, and thick black
smoke rose into the sky, Reuters reporters on the ground said.

Heavy
sustained gunfire could be heard from the Old City area, where
militants are hiding among residents and using the alleyways,
traditional family homes and snaking narrow roads to their advantage,
fleeing residents say.

“Federal
police forces have imposed full control over the Qadheeb al-Ban area and
the al-Malab sports stadium in the western wing of Old Mosul and are
besieging militants around the al-Nuri mosque,” federal police chief
Lieutenant General Raed Shaker Jawdat said in a statement.

Rapid
Response elite interior ministry troops were advancing on the edge of
the Old City, clambering over garden walls. Islamic State responded with
rocket fire, streaking the sky with white smoke plumes.

“There are teams going into the Old City since yesterday,” said Rapid Response official Abd al-Amir.Iraqi
troops shot down at least one suspected Islamic State drone. The
militants have been using small commercial models to spy and drop
munitions on Iraqi military positions.

With
the battle entering the densely populated areas of western Mosul,
civilian casualties are becoming more of a risk. The United Nations says
several hundred civilians have been killed in the last month, and
residents say Islamic State militants are using them as human shields.
The
senior U.S. commander in Iraq acknowledged on Tuesday that the U.S.-led
coalition probably had a role in an explosion in Mosul believed to have
killed scores of civilians, but said Islamic State could also be to
blame.

As
investigators probe the March 17 blast, Lieutenant General Stephen
Townsend said increases in casualties were to be expected as the war
against the insurgents entered its deadliest phase in the cramped,
narrow streets of Mosul’s Old City.

Local
officials and eyewitnesses say as many as 240 people may have been
killed in the Al-Jadida district when a huge blast caused a building to
collapse, burying families inside. Rescue workers are still pulling
bodies out of the site.

HUGE BLAST

What exactly happened on March 17 is still unclear and there have been conflicting accounts of how many people died.

Iraqi military command has said one line of
investigation is whether Islamic State rigged explosives that ultimately
caused the blast that destroyed buildings. Iraqi military said there
was no indication the building was hit directly by the strike.

Eyewitnesses
have said a strike may have hit a massive truck bomb parked by the
building. Others say families were either sheltering in a basement or
had been forced inside.
“My
initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties,”
Townsend, the senior coalition commander in Iraq, told a Pentagon news
briefing.

“What I don’t know is
were they (the civilians) gathered there by the enemy? We still have
some assessments to do. … I would say this, that it sure looks like
they were.”
The incident has
heightened fears for the safety of civilians – an important concern for
Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government as it tries to avoid alienating Mosul’s
mostly Sunni population.

The
United Nations rights chief said on Tuesday at least 307 civilians had
been killed and 273 wounded in western Mosul since Feb. 17, saying
Islamic State was herding residents into booby-trapped buildings as
human shields and firing on those who tried to flee.

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