Iraqi forces battled to retake districts of western Mosul still under control of terror group ISIS on Monday, in an attempt to seize victory before the holy month of Ramadan.
Backed by US-led coalition air strikes and advisers, Iraqi forces have made rapid gains since opening a new front in the northwest of Mosul earlier this month, closing in on the Old City.
Outnumbered, militants have retaliated with suicide car bombs and snipers embedded among the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in west Mosul. Many local people have been killed by militants or heavy bombardments.
“If we advance this quickly we can finish it in days,” First Lieutenant Nawfal al-Dhari told Reuters at a house turned into a temporary base in the western Islah al-Ziraie district, retaken by Iraqi forces three days ago.
“These are their dying breaths. They are completely surrounded.”
He said the momentum was with Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), the US-trained special forces who have led the campaign to retake the country’s second city, despite continued resistance from ISIS fighters.
“If you trap a cat in a room, it will scratch,” he said.
Retaking the mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 declared a “caliphate” spanning swathes of Syria and Iraq, would be both a symbolic and strategic victory.
Military commanders and intelligence officials say they aim to take control of al-Nuri mosque before Ramadan starts at the end of this month so they can declare the battle won, even if the militants continue to hold out in pockets.
They said the number of ISIS militants still fighting was shrinking, and they were increasingly disorganized and short of arms, ammunition and equipment following months of siege.