U.S.-backed Iraqi troops pushed into the last Islamic State stronghold in the country’s second largest city of Mosul Sunday, an Iraqi commander said, formally launching the final major battle of an eight-month campaign. • The IS group captured Mosul when it swept across northern and central Iraq in summer 2014. Iraq launched a massive operation to retake the city last October, and has driven the militants from all but a handful of neighborhoods. The extremists are expected to make their last stand in the Old City, a densely populated quarter with narrow, winding alleys. Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah, who commands army operations in Ninevah province, said Iraqi special forces, the regular army and Federal Police are taking part in the operation to retake the Old City, which began Sunday at dawn.
Old city, narrow streets • Iraq state TV aired live footage showing thick black smoke rising from the Old City and gunfire rattling from inside. It said leaflets were distributed urging civilians to leave through five safe corridors. Gen. Abdel Ghani al-Asadi, the head of Iraq’s special forces, told state TV he expects the extremists to put up a “vicious and tough fight.” The Old City is home to the centuries-old al-Nuri mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered a Friday sermon in 2014 as his group declared an Islamic caliphate in the areas it controlled in Syria and Iraq. The militants have lost much of that territory over the last three years, and Mosul is their last urban bastion in Iraq.
Thousands of civilians • Up to 150,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in the Old City, where the militants are using them as human shields, U.N. humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande told The Associated Press Friday. She said conditions are desperate, with little food and no clean water.