Mosul: Iraqi forces close in on Baghdadi's 'caliphate mosque'
Iraqi troops battling IS in Mosul advanced into the Old City and around the mosque on Friday, trying to seal off a main road to prevent militants from sending in reinforcements.
Iraqi government forces "are now a close distance from al-Nuri mosque," an officer in the Nineveh Operations Command [NOC] told The New Arab.
"Further reinforcements are coming in to the area around the mosque, in preparation for an assault," the officer added, saying the mosque was a key target with a major symbolic value, capturing which would be a boost to morale in the battle.
However, unfavourable weather conditions in western Mosul on Friday forced a slowdown on advancing forces, while shelling continued between the two sides.
IS took advantage to intensify its shelling on Iraqi forces, military sources told The New Arab.
"IS is preparing to send in suicide bombers to prevent the capture of the mosque, the NOC officer said.
Troops are meeting fierce resistance as militants retreat into the Old City, where street fighting is expected in the narrow alleyways and around the mosque where IS declared its caliphate nearly three years ago.
A helicopter fired rockets into the area and heavy gunfire and mortar blasts echoed as troops fought in districts near the Nuri mosque, where IS black extremist flag hangs from its leaning minaret.
"Federal police and rapid response forces completely control the al-Basha mosque, al-Adala street and Bab al-Saray market inside the Old City," a federal police spokesman told Reuters.
"Forces are trying to isolate the Old City area from all sides and then start an offensive from all sides."
Five months into the campaign to liberate Mosul, IS' last major stronghold in the country, Iraqi forces backed by US-led coalition airstrikes have retaken the eastern half of the city and about half of the west across the Tigris river.
Losing Mosul would be a huge blow to IS. It has served as the group's de facto capital since its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his self-declared caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria from the Nuri Mosque in July 2014.
Residents have been streaming out of western neighbourhoods recaptured by the government, many hungry and traumatised by living under IS' harsh rule.
As many as 600,000 civilians are caught with the militants inside Mosul, which Iraqi forces sealed off from the remaining territory that IS controls in Iraq and Syria, according to Reuters.
The Iraqi forces include army, special forces, Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias.
Around 255,000 people have been displaced from the city and surrounding areas since October, including more than 100,000 since the latest military campaign in western Mosul began on February 19, United Nations figures show.
The last week has seen the highest level of displacement yet, with 32,000 displaced between March 12 and 15.
Agencies contributed to this report.