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Iraqi troops move into Mosul's old city, last IS stronghold

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Iraqi forces, consisting of the Iraqi federal police and the elite Rapid Response Division, patrol in the Shifa neighbourhood, on the west bank of Mosul.

AP, Baghdad :
U.S.-backed Iraqi troops pushed into the last Islamic State stronghold in the country's second largest city of Mosul on 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 the summer of 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.
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.
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 on Friday. She said conditions are "desperate," with little food and no clean water.
Earlier report adds: Iraqi forces on Sunday started their assault on Mosul's Old City as they press their battle to retake the northern city from the Islamic State group, an army commander said.
"The army, counter-terrorism forces and federal police launched an attack on the Old City," Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir Yarallah said in a statement.
Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a senior commander with the Counter-Terrorism Service, confirmed the "start of the assault on the Old City".
Iraqi forces backed by the air strikes of the US-led coalition are pressing a months-long offensive to retake the Old City on the west side of the city from the jihadists.
"The initial air strikes started at around midnight. The security forces started storming parts of the Old City at dawn," an officer with Nineveh operations command said.
Taking back the Old City, a densely populated warren of narrow alleyways on the western side of Mosul, is crucial to recapturing the whole of the former IS bastion.
The United Nations say around 100,000 civilians are trapped in the ancient city centre.
Iraqi forces launched the battle for Mosul in October, retaking the eastern part of the city in January and starting the operation for its western part the next month.
The Islamic State group overran Mosul in 2014, declaring a self-styled "caliphate" over areas it ruled.

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