MOSUL • Iraqi forces began storming the Old City of Mosul held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) yesterday - an assault they hope will be the last in the eight- month campaign to seize the militant stronghold.
The historic district is the last still under control of the militants in the city that used to be their capital in Iraq.
It is a densely populated maze of narrow alleyways where fighting is often conducted house by house.
About 100,000 civilians remain trapped there in harrowing conditions, with little food, water and medicine and limited access to hospitals, according to the United Nations.
"This will be a terrifying time for around 100,000 people still trapped in Mosul's Old City... now at risk of getting caught up in the fierce street fighting to come," the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in a statement.
"This is the final chapter" in the offensive to take Mosul, said Lieutenant-General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, commander of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) elite units spearheading the assault.
A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support to the campaign.
The Iraqi government initially hoped to take Mosul by the end of last year, but the campaign took longer as militants dug in the middle of civilians.
ISIS is also using suicide car and motorcycle bombs, booby traps, and sniper and mortar fire against the troops.
"The buildings of the old town are particularly vulnerable to collapse even if they aren't directly targeted, which could lead to even more civilian deaths than the hundreds killed so far in air strikes across the rest of the city," the IRC said.
"We are trying to be very careful, using only light and medium weapons... to avoid casualties among civilians," Major-General Maan Saadi, a CTS leader, told Iraqi state TV.
Hundred of civilians were killed near the front lines in the past three weeks while fleeing the Old City, as Iraqi forces could not fully secure exit corridors.
The Iraqi army believes the number of ISIS fighters in the Old City does not exceed 300, down from nearly 6,000 when the battle of Mosul started on Oct 17 last year.
The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate" that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in a speech from a historic mosque in the Old City three years ago, covering parts of Iraq and Syria.
ISIS is also retreating in Syria, mainly in the face of a US-backed, Kurdish-led coalition. Its capital there, Raqqa, is being besieged.
The Syrian army said it would suspend combat operations in the southern city of Deraa for 48 hours from last Saturday, as mediators announced two separate attempts to convene new peace talks next month.
The announcement came on the same day the UN said it wanted to start a fresh round of peace talks between Syrian factions on July 10 in Geneva, and Moscow said it hoped to hold talks in Kazakhstan's capital Astana on July 4 and 5.