A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander has been killed in an explosion during clashes west of Mosul, an Iraqi official said.
According to Associated Press, news came as aid groups voiced concern for the safety of civilians after Iraq’s government called for residents in militant-held neighborhoods of the city to flee immediately.
General Shaaban Nasiiri was an adviser to Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force.
Being a special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responsible for their extraterritorial operations, the Quds Force reports directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei.
Iranian interference in Iraq battles against terror group ISIS, has stirred fears on further widening the sectarian divide in the country. Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, backed by Tehran, have registered accounts of extreme violence against Sunni residents of areas freed from ISIS.
Soleimani has acted as a key adviser to Iraq’s PMF which is also an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militia forces sanctioned by the Iraqi government since 2014.
The Iraqi official said Gen Nasiiri was killed on Friday and is the first senior Iranian commander to die in the Mosul fight.
Inside Mosul, US-backed Iraqi forces began the push to retake the Old City on Saturday morning, moving in on the district from three directions, according to a statement from Nineveh operations command, the authority overseeing the Mosul fight.
ISIS’ hold on Mosul has shrunk to just a few neighborhoods in and around the Old City district where narrow streets and a dense civilian population is expected to complicate the fight there.
Iraqi planes dropped leaflets over the area on Friday telling civilians to flee “immediately” to “safe passages” where they will be greeted by “guides, protectors and (transportation) to reach safe places”, according to a government statement.
However, it is unclear how the government intends to ensure safe passage for civilians as ISIS fighters have repeatedly targeted fleeing civilians with small arms and mortar fire.
The move to clear the Old City marks a shift in approach. Since the Mosul operation was launched in October, Iraqi forces have encouraged civilians to remain in their homes to avoid massive displacement.
However, more than 730,000 people have fled the fight to date, according to United Nations figures.
“As many as 200,000 additional people may try to leave in coming days,” the UN said in a statement on Saturday following the call for Old City civilians to leave. Save the Children warned on Friday that fleeing civilians could be caught in the crossfire, leading to “deadly chaos”.
More than 100,000 civilians are estimated to still be inside ISIS-held Mosul neighborhoods.
While US-backed forces have fought inside Mosul during the operation to retake it from ISIS, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces have largely operated in the deserts to the west ,cutting supply lines and attempting to begin securing Iraq’s border with Syria.
The Popular Mobilization Forces are largely supported by Tehran, a key Iraqi ally.
Iran has provided weapons, training and advisers credited with important early victories against the extremists in 2014 before the US began a campaign of air strikes targeting the group.
Mosul’s eastern half was declared liberated in January and the push for the city’s west began the following month.
While some Iraqi commanders said they hoped to retake the city before Ramadan, the Muslim holy month which began on Friday night, grueling urban combat has repeatedly slowed the pace of operations.