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ISIL fighters seal off Mosul mosque for last stand

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 01/06/2017
A black ISIL flag hangs from the minaret of the Grand Mosque in western Mosul [Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera A black ISIL flag hangs from the minaret of the Grand Mosque in western Mosul [Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

ISIL fighters have closed the streets around Mosul's Grand al-Nuri Mosque, residents said, apparently in preparation for a final showdown in the battle over their last major stronghold in Iraq.

Dozens of fighters were seen by residents taking up positions in the past 48 hours around the medieval mosque, the site where ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in July 2014.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's black flag has been flying from the mosque since the fighters captured Mosul and seized swathes of Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014.

"Daesh's fighters know that the mosque is the most important target and they are preparing for a major battle there," said Hisham al-Hashemi, who advises several Middle East governments, including Iraq's, on ISIL.

READ MORE: ISIL's 'caliph' lauds Iraq rebellion

The fall of the city would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the self-styled caliphate. Meanwhile in Syria, Kurdish forces backed by US-air strikes are besieging ISIL forces in the city of Raqqa, the fighters' de facto capital in that country.

Up to 200,000 people still live in harrowing conditions behind ISIL lines in Mosul, running low on food, water and medicine.

The Grand al-Nuri Mosque has become a symbolic focus of the campaign with Iraqi commanders privately saying they hope to capture it during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.

But a battle in or near the mosque would put the building and its famed leaning minaret at risk, experts say.

The minaret, several metres off the perpendicular and standing on humid soil, is particularly vulnerable as it has not been renovated since 1970. Its tilt gave the landmark its popular name - al-Hadba, or the hunchback.

The Mosul offensive, now in its eighth month, has taken much more time than expected as ISIL is fighting in the middle of civilians and using them as human shields. 

READ MORE: Focus on al-Nuri Mosque as residents flee Mosul

Over the past few days, fighters ordered dozens of families living in the Zanjili district to move into the Old City to prevent them from escaping towards the Iraqi forces trying to advance from the northern side, a resident said.

Government forces have been dropping leaflets over the districts telling families to flee, but the intensity of the fighting has prevented people from escaping.

ISIL is countering the offensive with suicide car and motorbike bombs, snipers, booby-traps and mortar fire.

About 700,000 people, or one-third of the pre-war city's population, have already fled seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps.

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