ERBIL, Iraq — Iraqi forces on Sunday began penetrating the narrow streets and warrens of Mosul’s heavily populated old city, in the last phase of a monthslong battle against the Islamic State militants that American commanders have described as one of the toughest in urban warfare since World War II.
The assault began at dawn, with airstrikes and a push by Iraq’s counterterrorism forces into the neighborhoods of the old city. It was met with fierce resistance by Islamic State fighters, according to commanders, suggesting that the battle, the most vicious phase in the long fight for Mosul, could go on for days or weeks.
As the fight began, security forces broadcast a message to residents of the old city over loudspeakers: “The security forces are advancing toward you and the salvation hour is near, and the enemy is losing its positions one after another, and their end is near.”
The message continued, asking civilians to flee toward security forces: “Come toward your brothers, your armed forces, and you will find the proper care.”
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The area of the old city sits on the west bank of the Tigris River and is home to the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, whose distinctive leaning minaret dominates western Mosul’s skyline and where the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spoke from the pulpit in 2014 and declared his caliphate.
The battle for Mosul — the largest city that the Islamic State has controlled in a vast territory straddling the border between Iraq and Syria — is already in its ninth month. It has proved to be longer and tougher than anyone anticipated, with hundreds of casualties among Iraqi security forces and civilians, many caused by United States-led airstrikes in the densely populated city.
Already on Sunday morning there were reports, which could not be immediately confirmed, that more than a dozen civilians had been killed in airstrikes on the old city.
As the battle has unfolded, the two sides of the city, east and west, have faced different fates. The eastern side was an easier task. Declared liberated this year, the east, where the city’s more well-to-do had lived, was seen as less loyal to the extremists of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Since the east was cleared of militants with relatively little destruction, a sense of normalcy has been reclaimed there, with civilians returning, schools and shops reopening — including a liquor store — and traffic clogging the streets. In the west, though, whole neighborhoods have been flattened, and hundreds of thousands of civilians now live in camps that have sprouted in the barren landscapes surrounding the city.
The battle has tested humanitarian aid groups and added to the crisis that has engulfed Iraq since 2014, when the Islamic State captured Mosul and swept across the north, west and center of the country. Since then, 4.8 million Iraqis have fled their homes, and today about three million have been unable to return home, according to the United Nations.
Humanitarian groups have been warning for weeks about the perils to civilians in the old city, where the United Nations believes up to 150,000 people are trapped, running low on food and water and held by Islamic State fighters as human shields in the face of advancing security forces.
Since the Mosul battle began in October, more than 800,000 civilians have fled the fighting. Some residents have since returned home, especially those from eastern Mosul, but close to 700,000 civilians from the city’s west have fled since February, and remain displaced.
On Sunday, the International Rescue Committee, an aid organization, warned in a statement of the dangers to civilians in the fight for the old city.
“This will be a terrifying time for around 100,000 people still trapped in Mosul’s old city and now at risk of being caught up in fierce street fighting to come,” said Nora Love, the group’s acting Iraq director.
“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 risks of civilians being used as human shields by ISIS fighters.”
Falih Hassan contributed reporting.