OLD CITY BATTLE
Islamic State in Mosul ‘encircled by Iraq army’
Erbil, Iraq — Iraq’s army said it had encircled Islamic State’s stronghold in the Old City of Mosul on Tuesday after taking over an area to the north of the densely populated historic district.
The army’s ninth armoured division seized the al-Shifaa district, which includes the city’s main hospitals, alongside the western bank of the Tigris River, a military statement said.
The fall of al-Shifaa means the Old City in the eastern half of Mosul is now surrounded by US-backed government forces, deployed north, west, south and east, across the river.
The battle for the Old City is becoming the deadliest in the eight-month US-backed offensive to capture Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq and the largest city the group came to control in the country.
On Monday a mine explosion at the Old City frontline killed two journalists, Stephane Villeneuve from France and Bakhtiar Haddad from Iraq, and wounded two other French reporters, according to foreign ministry sources in Paris.
Aid organisations have expressed alarm at the plight of more than 100,000 civilians trapped in fragile houses with little food, water and medicine and no electricity.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said sick and wounded civilians escaping through Islamic State lines were dying in "high numbers".
The militants are moving stealthily in the Old City’s maze of alleyways and narrow streets, through holes dug between houses, fighting back the advancing troops with sniper and mortar fire, booby traps and suicide bombers.
The Iraqi army estimates the number of Islamic State fighters at no more than 300, down from nearly 6,000 in the city when the battle of Mosul started on October 17. A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support.
A programme presenter who had worked for Islamic State’s Mosul-based Al-Bayan radio station, Alaa Sami al-Khateeb, was arrested on Tuesday in eastern Mosul, according to an Iraqi army statement.
The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate" that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared three years ago and which once covered swathes of Iraq and Syria.
The Iraqi government initially hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the campaign took longer as militants reinforced positions in civilian areas to fight back. The militants are also retreating in Syria, mainly in the face of a US-backed Kurdish-led coalition.
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.
On Tuesday Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi headed to Iran on the second leg of a Middle East tour after Saudi Arabia to pursue efforts to foster regional reconciliation and co-ordination against terrorism.
Iraq and Saudi Arabia agreed to set up a co-ordination council to upgrade strategic ties, a joint statement said on Tuesday at the end of his talks with Saudi King Salman a day earlier. After Iran, he will visit Kuwait.