US-backed Iraqi forces close in on ISIS stronghold in Mosul

MOSUL, Iraq, May 15 (Reuters) - U.S.-backed Iraqi forces pressed an advance on neighborhoods under Islamic State control in Mosul on Monday as they seek to dislodge fighters entrenched in a central mosque before the holy month of Ramadan.

Seven months into the campaign to recapture Mosul, militants are besieged in its northwestern corner, home to the historic Old City center and the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque, where their black flag has been flying since June 2014.

"If we advance this quickly we can finish it in days," First Lieutenant Nawfal al-Dhari told Reuters at a house turned into a temporary base in the western Islah al-Ziraie district, retaken by Iraqi forces three days ago.

"These are the dying breaths. They are completely surrounded." He said the momentum was with Iraq's elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) despite continued resistance from Islamic State fighters in the group's last bastion in Iraq.

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Members of the rapid response forces inspect a tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Members of the rapid response forces inspect a tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Members of the rapid response forces inspect a tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A view of Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Members of the rapid response forces inspect a tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A view of Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A view of Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A view of Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A view of Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel that was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. The slogan reads, "We will conquer Roma God willing". REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Members of the rapid response forces inspect a tunnel was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
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"If you trap a cat in a room, it will scratch," he said.

Military commanders and intelligence officials say they aim to take control of the mosque before Ramadan starts at the end of this month even if there are still pockets under militant control.

'STUNNED'

"Our advance on a vast front has stunned the enemy and, God willing, we will achieve victory before Ramadan and announce the liberation of Mosul and people of Mosul from dirtiness of Daesh (Islamic State)," Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanmi, chief of staff, said in a video distributed by the Defence Ministry.

He was speaking on a visit to the frontlines in western Mosul. Ramadan is expected to start on May 27.

The mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a "caliphate" spanning swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, has symbolic and strategic value for Islamic State, officials say.

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They hope its capture will deal a painful blow to fighter morale and bring an end to resistance in the city.

"The more they are besieged the harder they fight. They have nowhere to go," soldier Faris Sallal said at another house in the Islah al-Ziraie district, where intermittent gunfire and the occasional boom of artillery echoed.

Flies swarmed over the charred remains of an Islamic State militant lying near a motorbike on a street in the district. Parked in the garage of another house on the same street was an armor-plated car which had been rigged with a suicide bomb.

In the nearby Ureibi district, which is partially controlled by Iraqi forces, a Reuters reporter saw the bloodied corpse of an Islamic State sniper in a children's room on the upper floor of a house. Iraqi forces, now using the house as an outpost, said the sniper had been targeting advancing Iraqi troops.

The militants, outnumbered by Iraqi forces, have retaliated with suicide car bombs and snipers embedded among hundreds of thousands of civilians. Many local people have been killed under heavy bombardment and vital supplies are scarce, with some civilians being forced to eat weeds in order to survive.

The Iraqi government said last week the number of people fleeing Mosul had more than doubled to about 10,000 a day.

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A glimpse into the land ISIS has lost
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A glimpse into the land ISIS has lost
A billboard (L) with Koranic verses is seen in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An Islamic State flag hangs on the wall of an abandoned building in Tel Hamis in Hasaka countryside after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area March 1, 2015. Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing Tel Hamis, an important town, on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said. The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country's civil war. REUTERS/Rodi Said (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Tripods and a projector are pictured inside an ancient Hammam that was used by Islamic State militants as a media centre in Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A view shows part of a media centre that belonged to Islamic State militants inside an ancient Hammam in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A view shows car parts, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were used by Islamic State militants to prepare car bombs, at a workshop in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Iraqi soldiers inspect a vehicle used for suicide car bombings, made by Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A captured Islamic State tank and shells are seen at the Iraqi army base in Qaraqosh, east of Mosul, Iraq November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Rocket-propelled grenades left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Explosives left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of Iraqi security forces takes a selfie at a building that was used by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Ali, south of Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A book belonging to Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraqi officer displays Russian passports, which he says belong to Islamic State fighters, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A man who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul shows his marriage certificate issued by the Islamic State militants at temporary court at Khazer camp in Iraq, January 18, 2017. Picture taken January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands by an Islamic State militants weapons factory in Falluja, Iraq, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter inspects a room, which according to the SDF was used by Islamic State militants to prepare explosives, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
U.S. Special Operations Forces members inspect a drone used by Islamic State militants to drop explosives on Iraqi forces, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A member of Iraqi security forces inspects a building that was used as a prison by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Ali, south of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A mass grave for Islamic State militants are seen in Falluja, Iraq, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
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