By Isabel Coles and Maher Chmaytelli
MOSUL/BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on Tuesday battled their way to within firing range of Mosul’s main government buildings, a major target in the offensive to dislodge Islamic State militants from their remaining stronghold in the western side of the city.
Terrified civilians were fleeing the fighting, some toward government lines, often under militant fire. Others were forced to head deeper into Islamic State-held parts of the city, straining scarce food and water supplies there.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19.
If they defeat Islamic State in Mosul, that would crush the Iraq wing of the caliphate the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in 2014 over parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria. The U.S. commander in Iraq has said he believes U.S.-backed forces will recapture both Mosul and Raqqa – Islamic State’s Syria stronghold – within six months.
“The provincial council and the governorate building are within the firing range of the Rapid Response forces,” a media officer with the elite Interior Ministry units told Reuters, referring to within machinegun range or about 400 meters (1,300 feet).
Taking those buildings would help Iraqi forces attack the militants in the nearby old city center and would be of symbolic significance in terms of restoring state authority over the city.
U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) units battled Islamic State sniper and mortar fire as they moved eastwards through Wadi al-Hajar district to link up with Rapid Response and Federal Police deployed by the riverside, in a move that would seal off all southern access to the city.
The militants set ablaze homes, shops and cars to hide their movement and positions from air surveillance. Satellite pictures also showed a fabric cover set up over a street in the old city center.