Mosul siege extends IS fight in Iraq, puts civilians at risk

AP PHOTO In this May 10 file photo, an elderly woman and a child are pulled on a cart as civilians flee heavy fighting between Islamic State militants and Iraqi special forces in western Mosul, Iraq.

MOSUL, Iraq — Iraqi forces are steadily closing in on the remaining pockets of territory held by the Islamic State group in Mosul, inching toward a victory that U.S.-led coalition officials say is “only a matter of time.”

But unlike past urban battles against IS in Iraq, the militants in Mosul are under siege by Iraqi forces.

The Iraqi government on Friday announced a call for all civilians in the Old City to flee, but human rights groups warned the orders could force tens of thousands into deadly frontline clashes.

The decision to surround the remaining IS holdouts is prolonging an already grueling fight, according to Iraqi commanders, and is punishing civilians being held by IS as human shields.

In the fight for Fallujah and Ramadi, cities that were also overrun by IS in 2014 as the group seized vast swaths of territory in Iraq, there was a tipping point in the battles — the moment when the militants’ hold on a city had shrunk to only a handful of neighborhoods. At that point, senior IS fighters began to flee in greater numbers, the extremists’ command and control dissolved, defenses crumbled and Iraqi ground forces racked up a series of swift gains.

But in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city after Baghdad, Iraqi forces backed by the U.S.-led coalition have shrunk IS-held territory to less than 5 percent of the city and still resistance has remained stiff.

In what was meant to be a simple clearing operation last week, Iraqi Maj. Ihab Jalil al-Aboudi and his unit were pinned down for hours at a residential intersection in western Mosul just a few hundred meters from the Old City.

By afternoon, at least three coalition airstrikes were called in to clear IS fighters armed with medium machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

“Because the enemy cannot flee, the area is completely sealed off,” said Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil of Iraqi special forces. He said it’s impossible to predict how the next few weeks of the Mosul operation will play out, but so far the siege of the Old City is slowing progress on the ground.

“We are noticing that the closer we get to the Old City, the greater the resistance,” he added, looking over the roughly 8 square kilometers (3 square miles) of Mosul territory still in IS hands on a satellite mapping app.

The Old City — a warren of tightly packed homes and roads that shrink to the width of footpaths — holds special significance for Mosul’s residents and IS. The district is home to much of Mosul’s ancient heritage, including the Iconic leaning minaret of the al-Nuri Mosque where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate stretching across IS-held lands in Syria and Iraq in June 2014.

U.S. defense officials say “taking the time” to surround Islamic State strongholds is part of a new approach in the war against IS under the Trump administration, aimed at preventing militants from regrouping after territorial losses and foreign fighters from fleeing.