By John Davison
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – After five months of intense fighting, Iraqi forces have begun to drive back Islamic State into the dense and narrow-alleyed Old City of Mosul, with the mosque where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in 2014 firmly in sight.
Iraqi leaders say the battle to recapture Mosul is reaching its final stages, trumpeting each gain made against the militants.
But as Islamic State slows Iraqi advances with stiff resistance, residents trapped inside the Old City with the jihadists describe a desperate siege, with widespread hunger, destruction from U.S.-led air strikes, and civilians living in fear of revenge as the ultra-violent group gets cornered.
“If we hadn’t got out this morning, they’d have killed us,” said Hisham Sobhi, 41, who fled with his family from their home on the southwestern edge of the Old City on Thursday.
“They (Islamic State) leave some areas, some homes, but sometimes come back again. If they find people still living in areas considered liberated by the army, they kill them,” he said.
Mosul is many times larger than any other city Islamic State has held in its self-proclaimed Caliphate, and the fight to drive the militants out, which began last October, is Iraq’s biggest ground battle since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.