Iraqi army helicopters strafed and fired rockets at Islamic State positions in Mosul's Old City on Sunday as troops on the ground closed in on the strategic and symbolic prize of the al-Nuri Mosque.
Federal Police troops had advanced past the train station in western Mosul closer to the mosque. A police commander said they were very close to taking control of it.
Residents fled from the area, carrying bags of belongings and picking their way through the wrecked buildings as shells and gunfire echoed behind them. Most of them were women and children.
|An Iraqi Air Force helicopter fires missiles against Islamic State militants during a battle in Mosul, Iraq March 19, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
"Federal Police and Rapid Response forces resumed their advance after halting operations due to bad weather. The troops have a target of retaking the rest of the Old City," a police spokesman said.
The battle to recapture Islamic State's last stronghold in Iraq has now entered its sixth month. Iraqi government forces, backed by U.S. advisers, artillery and air support, have cleared the east and half of western Mosul and are now focused on controlling the Old City.
Recent fighting has targeted the centuries-old al-Nuri Mosque, with its famous leaning minaret. Its capture would be a blow for Islamic State as it was from there that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in July 2014 after the hardline militants had seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.
U.S. officials estimate about 2,000 IS fighters remain inside Iraq's second largest city, resisting with mortar fire, snipers and suicide car bombs that plow into army positions.
The black Islamic State flag still flew from the mosque's minaret on Sunday.