Iraqi army helicopters strafed and rocketed Islamic State positions inside Mosul’s Old City on Sunday as ground troops fought fierce street battles to close in on the strategic prize of the al-Nuri Mosque.
An air strike by the U.S.-led coalition backing Iraq forces in their campaign to retake Mosul also killed six foreign militant commanders in the west, including a Russian who was a senior Islamic State leader, Iraq’s defense ministry said.
Federal Police troops on Sunday advanced past the train station in western Mosul close to the mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in July 2014 after the hardline militants had seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Residents fled from the area, carrying suitcases and bags of belongings and picking their way through the wrecked buildings as shells and gunfire echoed behind them. Most of them were women and children.
“Federal Police and Rapid Response forces resumed their advance after halting operations due to bad weather. The troops have a target of retaking the rest of the Old City,” a police spokesman said.
The battle to recapture Islamic State’s last stronghold in Iraq has now entered its sixth month. Iraqi government forces, backed by U.S. advisers, artillery and air support, have cleared the east and half of western Mosul and are now focused on controlling the Old City.
Recent fighting has targeted the centuries-old al-Nuri Mosque, with its famous leaning minaret. Its capture would be a blow for Islamic State as it was from there that Baghdadi declared himself head of his self-proclaimed caliphate.
U.S. officials estimate about 2,000 IS fighters remain inside Iraq’s second largest city, resisting with mortar fire, snipers and suicide car bombs that plow into army positions.
The black Islamic State flag still flew from the mosque’s minaret on Sunday.
Iraq’s defense ministry said in a statement a coalition air strike destroyed a command center, killing Russian leader Abdul Kareem al-Rusi, head of the Tareq Bin Ziyad brigade, as well as a British-Algerian, a French-Syrian, a Turkish commander and two fighters from Morocco.