Iraqi forces launched a final assault on Mosul's Old city, the last stronghold of Islamic State in their self-declared "caliphate" in Iraq.
Following overnight airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi forces began the attack on the historic district of Iraq's second largest city at dawn, military commanders said.
According to VOA's Heather Murdock in Mosul, soldiers say they have broken through the first defense lines that surround the area, where as many as 150,000 civilians are believed to be trapped, starving and serving as human shields to IS.
Soldiers say these families are a key source of intelligence as military forces fight on foot, taking one house at a time.
“They help us a lot. When we go in they tell us which roads have IEDs or car bombs on them. It’s difficult for us to enter new areas but families make it easier.," said 1st Lieutenant Walid El-Rakabi with Iraq's Special Forces.
The Old City of Mosul is the area of the city still under the control of Islamic State, who seized Mosul three years ago.
WATCH: Heather Murdock's report from Mosul:
The Iraqi military offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State was launched on October 17. The militants were ousted rather quickly from their stronghold in the east, but retaking the more densely-populated western part of the city, including the Old City, has taken longer than expected.
The International Rescue Committee called on Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition to "do everything in their power to keep civilians safe during these final stages of the battle for Mosul."
"With its narrow and winding streets, Iraqi forces will be even more reliant on airstrikes despite the difficulty in identifying civilians sheltering in buildings and the increased risk of civilians being used as human shields by ISIS fighters," said Nora Love, the aid group's acting country director, using another acronym for IS.
The Old City is home to the centuries-old al-Nuri mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered a Friday sermon in 2014 as his group declared an Islamic caliphate in the areas it controlled in Syria and Iraq. The militants have lost much of that territory over the last three years, and Mosul is their last urban bastion in Iraq.
Some information from this report was provided by the Associated Press.