The Islamic State group has begun blocking off streets around the Grand al-Nuri Mosque in western Mosul as it prepares for a final battle against the Iraqi military.
Residents in the area told The Associated Press and Reuters they have seen dozens of IS jihadists shutting down streets near the mosque and ordering those families in the area to leave their houses, apparently in preparation for a coming fight.
The al-Nuri mosque in Mosul’s Old City holds a symbolic meaning for the IS fighters because it is the place where the jihadist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in 2014 to declare an Islamic “caliphate” on land the group controlled in Iraq and Syria.
The mosque is the site of an 840-year-old minaret – known as the crooked minaret due to its slight lean – that was saved from destruction only after local residents formed a human chain around it to keep IS from blowing it up. The group’s black flag has been flying at the top of the minaret since then.
"Daesh's fighters know that the mosque is the most important target and they are preparing for a major battle there," Hisham al-Hashemi, a consultant for several Middle Eastern countries, told Reuters.
Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, have removed IS jihadists from all but 12 square kilometers of Mosul, containing the remaining fighters in the Old City, where they have been preparing to make their last stand.
As the IS jihadists continue to lose ground, they've started using civilians as human shields, and killing those who attempt to flee the city.
The United Nations estimates there are about 100,000 civilians still trapped in areas under IS control.