MOSUL, Iraq, April 16 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi security forces advanced further inside the old city center of the western side of Mosul on Sunday amid fierce clashes with Islamic State (IS) militants, the Iraqi military said.
The federal police and interior ministry special forces, known as Rapid Response, advanced at dawn from the area of Qadheeb al-Ban in the west of the old city center and heavily clashed with IS militants during the day, Lt. Gen. Raid Shakir Jawdat, commander of the federal police forces, said in a statement.
Following hours of fierce clashes, the troops moved some 200 meters deeper into the old city center and took new posts closer to the historical mosque of al-Nuri in the center of the densely populated city, Jawdat said.
The mosque with its famous leaning minaret, which gave the city its nickname "al-Hadbaa" or "hunchback", is of symbolic value as it was where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the cross-border "caliphate" in massive areas in Iraq and Syria in his only public appearance in July 2014.
"The enemy is retreating and federal police snipers positioned themselves on building rooftops as they shot at militants and suspected booby-trapped vehicles," Jawdat added.
Previously, troops were unsuccessful in advancing into the old city center despite heavy back-and-forth fighting for over a month.
IS militants stubbornly resisted in the IS-held old city center, where roughly 400,000 residents are believed to be still trapped in their old homes within the maze-like narrow city allies.
Progressing into the old city center is at av much slower pace the early phases of the offensive after the troops restricted the use of bombs and increased sniper fire against terrorist militants holed up in the densely populated ancient city center.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, announced the start of an offensive on Feb. 19 to drive out extremist militants from Mosul's western section, locally known as the Tigris River's right bank, which cuts the city in half.
Late in January, Abadi declared the liberation of the eastern side of Mosul, or the Tigris's left bank, after over 100 days of fighting against IS militants.
However, Mosul's western section, with its narrow streets and heavily populated neighborhoods, appears to be a bigger challenge for Iraqi forces.
Mosul, 400 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, has been under IS control since June 2014, when government forces abandoned their posts anas well as weapons and fled, enabling IS militants to control sections of Iraq's northern and western regions.