BAGHDAD (AP) — Just after dawn Thursday morning, Iraqi forces began a push along the northern edge of Mosul's western half where Islamic State group fighters are holding onto a cluster of neighborhoods, according to the spokesman for the ministry of defense.
Iraqi forces are happily facing "victory or martyrdom," in the battle against the extremists, Yahya Rasool said in a statement released by his office. Iraqi army and federal police divisions are participating in the push along with the elite rapid response units who fall under federal police command, Rasool said.
The front lines in western Mosul have inched forward for months as IS fighters have used a claustrophobic battle space and hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields to slow Iraqi troops. On the southern edge of Mosul's west, Iraq's federal police are just a few hundred meters (yards) from Mosul's al-Nuri mosque.
The mosque is a hugely symbolic prize as it is where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made a rare public appearance in July 2014 and declared the group's self-styled caliphate after IS seized almost a third of Iraq. But the mosque lies inside Mosul's old city where some of the toughest fighting is expected to unfold due to the narrow streets, according to coalition officials. Iraqi forces now appear to be moving to surround the old city before launching an operation to clear it.
The fight for Mosul's west has been slow and deadly to Iraqi forces and civilians caught in the crossfire. During a congressional hearing in March, Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, said the fight for Mosul had left 774 Iraqi security forces dead and 4,600 wounded. Iraq's military does not release casualty information for its forces.
More than six months of fighting has killed and wounded more than 8,000 civilians, according to the United Nations, a number that only counts people transferred to hospitals from frontline clinics.
Hundreds of thousands of people are still trapped inside the Mosul neighborhoods under IS control and some 419,000 people have been forced to flee western Mosul alone since the fighting began there, according to a U.N. statement released this week.
Mosul fell to IS nearly three years ago and the operation to retake it was launched in October. Iraqi forces declared the city's eastern half "liberated" in January.