Nearly 100,000 Iraqis have fled western half of Mosul in the past three weeks as government forces backed by Shia militias loyal to Iran advanced on territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The Iraqi Ministry of Immigration and Displacement said on Wednesday that as many as 600,000 civilians remained trapped in neighbourhoods of west Mosul controlled by the armed group.
Iraqi forces and their allies have been making steady progress in the city, forcing ISIL (also known as ISIS) out of a series of neighbourhoods and retaking important sites such as the airport, Mosul museum, train station and provincial government headquarters.
But the battle for west Mosul – smaller and more densely populated than the eastern side, which Iraqi forces recaptured earlier this year – has forced a flood of people to flee their homes.
In recent days, residents have been streaming out of western neighbourhoods recaptured by the government, desperate and hungry and traumatised by living under ISIL’s harsh rule.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), between February 25 and March 15, more than 97,000 people were displaced, an increase of around 17,000 from the figure it released on Tuesday.
The IOM said the new figures, provided by the Iraqi government, also showed that more than 116,000 people from the city’s west had gone through a screening site south of Mosul.
“Some families are still stuck,” Hajj Ahmed, a 55-year-old who had recently fled Mosul, told the AFP news agency.
“They [ISIL] have been besieging people for seven days,” he said, before praising Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service for saving them.
A federal police spokesman told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that his officers and a special forces unit had advanced on the iconic Nuri mosque, where in July 2014, ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself the head of a caliphate.
“Our troops are making a steady advance … and we are now less than 800 metres from the mosque,” he said.
The gains were made during heavy fighting in which troops fought street-by-street against suicide car bombs, mortar and sniper fire, and grenade-dropping drones.
ISIL fighters have booby-trapped houses, and government forces have been forced to fight amongst civilians, ruling out the extensive use of air and artillery support.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s has repeatedly asserted that the battle was reaching its final stages.
In a news conference late on Tuesday, he warned the insurgents to surrender or face death.
“We will preserve families of Daesh (an acronym formed from letters of the group’s name in Arabic) 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.”
ISIL seized Mosul in mid-2014 when the group swept through areas north and west of Baghdad, taking control of swaths of territory and declaring a cross-border “caliphate” in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Backed by US-led air strikes and other international military support, Iraqi forces have since retaken much of the territory they lost.
Losing Mosul would be a major blow to ISIL, but the group is expected to pose a continuing threat, reverting to guerrilla-style tactics.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies