BAGHDAD/MOSUL, IRAQ – Iraqi forces battled the Islamic State group over several hours during heavy clashes in west Mosul on Sunday.
The number of people who fled fighting in the area reportedly topped 45,000.
Iraqi forces have recaptured several areas in west Mosul since launching the push to retake it on Feb. 19, but their pace has slowed amid bad weather, which turns streets into muddy tracks and makes air support more difficult.
West Mosul is the largest urban population center still held by the Islamic State group, followed by the city of Raqqa in Syria and the town of Tal Afar, which is located between Mosul and the Syrian border.
The fall of west Mosul will effectively mark the demise of Islamic State’s cross-border “caliphate,” which its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced from a mosque in the city in 2014, but the threat posed by the jihadis would still be far from over.
Black smoke billowed over west Mosul on Sunday as Iraqi forces battled Islamic State forces in a fight marked by explosions and continual automatic weapons fire.
In the course of the fighting, security forces targeted an approaching Islamic State car bomb, detonating it and sending a fireball rising over the area, and also fired on a jihadi drone flying overhead.
“Rapid Response forces are moving toward important governmental buildings such as the governorate building and the police directorate,” Lt. Col. Abdulamir al-Mohammedawi, a member of the elite Interior Ministry unit, said.
The jihadis are using snipers, mortars and bombs planted in streets and houses, al-Mohammedawi said.
Al-Dawasa, which includes the Nineveh province governor’s headquarters and other government buildings, was among several areas assaulted by Iraqi forces on Sunday.
The Joint Operations Command said the Rapid Response forces and federal police were attacking al-Dindan and al-Dawasa, while the counterterrorism service carried out an attack on al-Sumood and Tal al-Rumnan.
Lt. Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat later said in a statement that police — presumably along with forces from the Rapid Response Division — had advanced to within “dozens of meters” of the government buildings in al-Dawasa.
The Counterterrorism Service and Rapid Response are two special forces units that have spearheaded most of the advances in the Mosul area.
The Iraqi Army is also taking part in the fight for west Mosul, with the 9th Armored Division advancing through the desert surrounding the city, aiming to cut if off from Tal Afar, farther west.
More than 45,000 people have fled west Mosul since the push to retake it began, while over 200,000 are currently displaced as a result of the battle to retake the city, which was launched on Oct. 17, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The IOM figures indicate the number of people who came from west Mosul to sites for the displaced from Feb. 25, when the arrivals began, through Sunday.
More than 17,000 people arrived from west Mosul on Feb. 28 alone, while over 13,000 came on Friday, according to the IOM.
On Saturday, Iraq’s minister of displacement and migration publicly criticized United Nations-led efforts to aid those displaced by the west Mosul fighting, while the U.N. said such assistance was the “top priority.
“Unfortunately, there is a clear shortfall in the work of these (U.N.) organizations,” Jassem Mohammed al-Jaff said in a statement.
The U.N., which has been providing shelter, food and other assistance to Iraqis who have fled Mosul during the nearly five-month-long battle, said it is working as fast as possible to help those displaced.
“The top priority for humanitarians is to make sure that there is sufficient capacity at emergency sites to deal with the number of civilians who are fleeing western Mosul,” said Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.
The Islamic State overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led airstrikes and other support have since regained most of the territory they lost.
The pace of displacement has accelerated in recent days as fighting approaches the most densely populated parts of western Mosul, and aid agencies have expressed concern that camps to accommodate people fleeing the city are almost full.
The International Organization for Migration’s Mosul Displacement Tracking Matrix showed the number of people uprooted since the start of the offensive in October exceeded 206,000 on Sunday, up from 164,000 on Feb. 26.
That number may still rise sharply. The United Nations last month warned that more than 400,00 people, more than half the remaining population in western Mosul, could be displaced.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19.
Defeating Islamic State in Mosul would crush the Iraqi wing of the caliphate declared by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2014, over parts of Iraq and Syria.
Al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate from Mosul’s grand Nuri mosque, in the old city center, which is still under his followers’ control.
Rapid Response units and Counterterrorism Service forces launched a fresh push into the city Sunday after a 48-hour pause due to bad weather that hampered air surveillance, facilitating counterattacks by the militants.
Rapid Response teams are “very close” to the government buildings near the old city, said a senior media officer with the elite Interior Ministry units.
Their progress was met with heavy sniper and mortar fire, a Reuters photographer reported from Mosul.
The complex, which houses the Nineveh Provincial Council and the Nineveh Governorate buildings, should be taken on Monday, al-Mohammadawi said.
Recapturing the site will help Iraqi forces attack the militants in the nearby old city. It will also mark a symbolic step toward restoring state authority over Mosul, even though the buildings are destroyed and are not being used by Islamic State forces.
Rapid Response units captured have captured the Danadan district, which lies just south-east of the complex, while U.S.-trained Counterterrorism Service units pushed through Tal al-Ruman and the Somood districts, in the south-west.
The Iraqi military believes several thousand militants, including many who traveled from Western countries, are hunkered down among the remaining civilian population, which aid agencies estimated to number 750,000 in western Mosul at the start of the latest offensive.
The militants are using suicide car bombers, snipers and booby traps to counter the offensive waged by the 100,000-strong force of Iraqi troops, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iranian-trained Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups.
They were also reported to have fired rockets and mortar rounds filled with toxic agents from the western side of the city to the eastern, government-controlled side.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) offered to assist the Iraqi government investigating the use of chemical weapons in Mosul.
Twelve people, including women and children, are being treated in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region east of Mosul, for possible exposure to chemical agents causing blisters, eye redness, vomiting and irritation, the United Nations said on Saturday.
Islamic State used chemical weapons at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria and at least 19 times in the areas around Mosul between 2014 and November 2016, according to data collected by IHS Markit. Several thousand people have been killed or wounded so far in the Mosul offensive, both civilians and military, according to aid organizations.