MOSUL — Nearly 100,000 Iraqis have fled the battle to retake west Mosul from Daesh (the so-called IS) group, the International Organization for Migration said on Wednesday.
Iraqi forces launched a major push last month to recapture west Mosul, which is the most populated urban area still held by Daesh, with an estimated 750,000 residents when the battle began.
Between Feb. 25 and March 15, more than 97,000 people have been displaced from west Mosul, the IOM said on its official Twitter account.
It marks an increase of around 17,000 from the displacement figure the IOM released the previous day, though this does not necessarily indicate that all of those additional people fled in the past 24 hours.
Iraqi government forces were moving steadily towards Mosul’s Grand Mosque on Wednesday after taking control of the bridge leading to Old City, police said.
“Our troops are making a steady advance toward the Grand Mosque and we are now less than 800 meters from the mosque,” a federal police spokesman said.
Losing the city would be a huge blow to Daesh as it has served as the group’s de facto capital since its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself head of a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria from the Grand Mosque in the summer of 2014.
Troops were also concentrating on capturing the Iron Bridge linking eastern Mosul with the Old City on the western side of the Tigris river, where Daesh fighters are preparing to make a last stand.
Heavy fighting was reported around the Mosul Museum by journalists and combatants. A Daesh suicide car bomb exploded near the museum.
The intense combat, much of it street-by-street, marked a decisive stage in the battle for Mosul which started on Oct. 17 last year.
The capture of the Grand Mosque would be a huge symbolic victory as well as a concrete gain but that may take some time yet. The attacking forces faced sniper and mortar fire as well as the threat of suicide car bombs and grenade-dropping drones.
Iraqi officers said cloudy weather was hampering air cover on Wednesday morning.
Securing the Iron Bridge would mean Iraqi forces hold three of the five bridges in Mosul that span the Tigris, all of which have been damaged by the militants and US-led airstrikes.
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said: “Day after day Daesh militants are surrounded inside a tight area and they are in their final days.”
“Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday night, he warned the insurgents that they must surrender or be killed although he also pledged to treat the militants’ families fairly.
“Let me be very clear, we will preserve families of Daesh who are civilians but we will punish the terrorists and bring them to justice if they surrender,” he said. “They are cornered and if they will not surrender they will definitely get killed.”
However, many hard days of fighting could still lie ahead as government forces try to make headway in the streets and narrow alleyways of the Old City. Daesh fighters have booby-trapped houses, and government forces will also be fighting amongst civilians, ruling out the extensive use of air and artillery support. — Agencies