Western-backed forces edged into the final redoubts of the two capitals of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria on Tuesday, hampered by fierce resistance from the militants and the presence of human shields, Reuters reports.
Iraqi commanders have predicted final victory in Mosul this week after a grinding eight-month assault on the once two-million-strong city pushed Islamic State into a rectangle no more than 300 by 500 meters beside the Tigris river.
In Raqqa, Islamic State’s headquarters in northern Syria from where it plotted attacks around the world, US-backed militia were fighting inside the historic Old City after coalition air strikes breached its walls in two places.
Victory over the hardline militants in both cities would mark the effective end of the three-year-old caliphate, although a few towns and large rural areas of Iraq and Syria remain under their control.
But their centers are a maze of narrow alleyways packed with civilians and planted with multiple explosive devices by the militants, who are also using drones and suicide bombings.
“The presence of civilians has affected the troops’ advance a lot,” said a commander in Mosul from the Rapid Response Division, an elite Interior Ministry unit, estimating there were 10,000 civilians, including some brought in as human shields.
Iraqi commanders called in air strikes on targets just 50 meters away from them and fighting got close enough at one point for the militants to throw a hand grenade at the troops.
“The directions from the commander-in-chief of the armed forces are to advance slowly to preserve civilians’ lives and this is what we are doing,” the officer said on Iraqi state TV without being named.
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