By Stephen Kalin
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi forces on Tuesday pushed towards the river side of Mosul's Old City, their key target in the eight-month campaign to capture Islamic State's de-facto capital, and Iraq's prime minister predicted victory very soon.
Iraqi forces, battling up to 350 militants dug in among civilians in the Old City, said federal police had dislodged IS insurgents from the Ziwani mosque and were only a few days away from ousting militants completely from the Old City.
"The victory announcement will come in a very short time," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on his website on Monday evening.
"The operation is continuing to free the remaining parts of the Old City," Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) told a Reuters correspondent near the frontline in the heart of the Old City.
Iraqi forces had about 600 meters (2,000 ft) left to cover before they reach Cornishe Street alongside the western bank of the Tigris, Federal Police commander Lieutenant General Raed Shaker Jawdat told Iraqi State TV.
"In a few days our forces will reach Cornishe Street and bring the battle to its conclusion," said Jawdat, adding that federal police had forced militants out of Ziwani mosque in the Old City's southwestern corner.
The fall of Mosul would mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate" proclaimed by Islamic State though the militant group remains in control of large areas of both Iraq and Syria.
In Syria, the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa, is nearly encircled by a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led coalition.
Federal Police and elite CTS units in Mosul are attacking IS fighters in the Old City's maze of narrow alleyways, together with the army and the interior ministry's Emergency Response Division (ERD).
Up to 350 militants are estimated by the Iraqi military to be dug in there among civilians in wrecked houses and crumbling infrastructure.
They were making extensive use of booby traps, suicide bombers and sniper fire to slow the advance of Iraqi forces from the west, the north and the south.
Those residents who have escaped say many of the civilians trapped behind Islamic State lines -- put at 50,000 by the Iraqi military - have little food, water or medicines.
A U.S.-led international coalition is providing air and ground support in the eight-month-old offensive.
The Iraqi government once hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the fighting has dragged on as the militants reinforced positions in civilian areas, effectively using the residents as human shields.
Hundreds of civilians who managed to escape as the forces advanced into the Old City gathered on the side of the road at the edge of western Mosul on Tuesday.
Hundreds of civilians fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past month.
The militants last week destroyed the historic Grand al-Nuri Mosque and its leaning minaret from which their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago. The mosque's grounds remain under the militants' control.
Iraqi troops captured on Monday the neighborhood of al-Faruq in the northwestern side of the Old City, facing the mosque, the military said.
Only a handful of neighborhood remain to be cleared, al-Saadi said, standing atop a rooftop overlooking al-Faruq street which now marks the frontline, a few dozen meters (yards) from the old mosque.
Sporadic sniper fire could be heard, and an incoming rocket, as the troops used a white commercial drone to survey the insurgents' defenses. The Iraqi forces started attacking the western side of Mosul in February, a month after taking the side located east of the Tigris.
About 850,000 people, more than a third of the pre-war population of the northern Iraqi city, have fled, seeking refuge with relatives or in camps, according to aid groups.
Islamic State's Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is assumed to be hiding in the Iraqi-Syrian border area. There has been no confirmation of Russian reports over the past days that he has been killed.
The group has carried out sporadic suicide bombings in parts of Mosul using sleeper cells. It launched a wave of such attacks late on Sunday, trying to take control of a district west of the Old City, Hay al-Tanak, and the nearby Yarmuk neighborhood.
The security forces blocked their attempt and secured the two neighborhoods, al-Saadi said.
(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Richard Balmforth)