BAGHDAD/MOSUL • Iraqi armed forces yesterday launched an operation to capture the last enclave held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul, according to a military statement.
The fall of the city would effectively mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate" declared nearly three years ago by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which also covers parts of Syria.
The Iraqi air force dropped leaflets on Friday urging residents in the enclave to flee, although humanitarian groups fear for the safety of civilians trying to escape.
The enclave covers mainly the Old City centre and three adjacent districts along the western bank of the Tigris river.
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The United States-backed offensive on Mosul, now in its eighth month, has taken longer than planned as the militants are dug in among civilians, fighting back with booby traps, suicide cars and motorbikes, snipers and mortar fire.
"The joint forces have began liberating the remaining districts," said an Iraqi military statement.
Desperate civilians trapped behind ISIS lines now face a harrowing situation with little food and water, no electricity and limited access to hospitals.
The push inside the Old City coincides with the start of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Its prime targets are the mediaeval Grand al-Nuri mosque and its landmark leaning minaret, where ISIS' black flag has been flying since mid-2014.
The forces hope to capture in the next few days the mosque where Baghdadi revealed himself to the world and announced the "caliphate".
Residents in the Old City sounded desperate in telephone interviews made over the past few days. "We're waiting for death at any moment, either by bombing or starving," one said, asking not to be identified for his own safety.
"Adults eat one meal a day, either flour or lentil soup."
The United Nations expressed "deep concern" for the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped behind ISIS lines, in a statement yesterday.
The UN last week said up to 200,000 more people could flee Mosul as fighting moves to the Old City. About 700,000 people, about a third of the pre-war city's population, have already fled, seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps.