Mosul, July 2: Iraqi forces were battling the last few hundred jihadists in Mosul's historic centre as they pressed the final stages of an assault to drive the Islamic State group from the city.
More than eight months since the country's forces launched a grueling operation to retake Mosul, IS has gone from fully controlling the city to holding a few neighbourhoods on its western side.
"The number is... more or less 300 fighters, most of them of European nationalities, Arabs of other nationalities or of Asian origin," said Staff Brigadier General Nabil al-Fatlawi, a commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).
"We are not able to specify when the battles will end because of the narrow type of streets in the Old City and also the presence of civilian detainees," Fatlawi said, referring to residents being used as human shields by IS. "But I can say within days," he said.
Earlier in the day, Iraq's Joint Operations Command announced CTS forces had recaptured the Makawi area of the Old City, in a further blow at the heart of the jihadists' cross- border "caliphate". Security forces recaptured a series of nearby districts, cornering the jihadists, and launched an assault inside the Old City on June 18. They have since made significant progress.
Federal police chief Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat said the area around the hospital, Al-Shifaa, had been completely retaken, limiting IS's presence in Mosul to the Old City.
"Our forces are advancing from three sides and are pursuing the terrorist groups in the few remaining areas of the Old City," said Jawdat. On Thursday, Iraqi forces retook the remains of the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri in their greatest symbolic victory since the battle began. IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave a triumphal sermon at the mosque after the jihadists captured Mosul in 2014, calling on Muslims to obey him. The mosque thus became a symbol of Baghdadi's rule and IS's "caliphate".
The jihadists made sure that the Nuri mosque was not captured intact, blowing it up as Iraqi forces closed in, along with its famed leaning minaret -- known affectionately as "Al-Hadba" (The Hunchback). IS claimed on its Amaq propaganda agency that the site was hit in a US air strike, but the US-led coalition said it was the jihadists who had "destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq's great treasures". Even though it lies in ruins, the mosque's recapture has provided a boost to Iraq's forces and its government.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the jihadists' "caliphate" was coming to an end. The next day, a senior Iraqi commander said victory in Mosul would be declared within the "next few days". The recapture of Mosul will not however mark the end of the war against IS. The jihadist group still holds territories in both Iraq and neighbouring Syria, where it has been able to carry out attacks in government-held areas. The jihadist group has also inspired "lone wolf" attacks overseas.