Thousands of Iraqis were fleeing west Mosul during lulls in heavy fighting as government troops closed in on the Old City and a strategic mosque in their campaign to drive Islamic State (IS) militants out of Iraq's second-largest city.
Officials on March 18 said Iraqi forces were facing strong resistance as they attempted to retake the crowded, narrow streets of west Mosul in a drive launched with U.S. air support on February 19.
Government troops captured the eastern half of the militants’ so-called capital in Iraq in January after 100 days of fighting.
Iraqi troops are focused on encircling the Old City and the important Al-Nuri Mosque in west Mosul, Lieutenant General Raed Chaker of the Federal Police said.
Another Federal Police official on March 18 said troops had recaptured two heavily populated neighborhoods, Al-Kur and Al-Tawafa, in the Old City.
Food and water remained scarce and security was precarious in newly liberated areas. Many residents were seen fleeing to safer areas during lulls in fighting.
"We have been trapped for 25 days. No water, no food, everyone will die, and they will have to pull us from the rubble," a resident of Bab Jdid district told Reuters.
"It is terrible. Islamic State has destroyed us. There is no food, no bread. There is absolutely nothing," another resident said.
U.S. officials estimated as many as 750,000 civilians may have been in west Mosul at the start of the offensive, along with some 2,000 IS fighters.
Elements of the Federal Police and Rapid Response forces are leading the campaign around the Old City and the mosque.
Rain and heavy clouds were hanging over the area, limiting air cover.
"The weather is cloudy and rainy, but our forces are advancing toward their targets," Federal Police Major General Haider Dhirgham said.
IS militants were fighting back with sniper fire, mortars, and armored suicide car bombs, officials said.
Mosul and the Al-Nuri Mosque are of major symbolic importance to IS because it was where leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his so-called caliphate in 2014.
IS’s stronghold in Syria, Raqqa, is also under pressure from U.S.-backed forces.
IS militants seized large portions of northern Iraq and Syria in an offensive in 2014.
The group has been accused of numerous atrocities and has claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere.