By Stephen Kalin
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Peering through a lookout hole at the Mosul frontline on Tuesday, Iraqi soldiers clad in black uniforms surveyed the last remaining patch of land controlled by Islamic State in the city’s historic center.
Just steps away in no-man’s land stands the stump of the Hadba minaret, which towered above the city for 850 years until the militants rigged it with explosives and razed it to the ground last week.
Getting this deep into Mosul’s Old City means soldiers from the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) must dismount from their armored Humvees and walk for 10 minutes down a maze of narrow alleyways which at some points are barely wider than a man.
They climb through holes knocked into walls, entering abandoned homes and courtyards where detritus and concrete rubble is piled up at every turn.
Construction is so dense here that vehicles cannot pass and air strikes would likely cause too much collateral damage. The battle to retake Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq has come down to a band of soldiers with assault rifles maneuvering on foot through the dusty heart of the city.
Heavy fighting in close quarters between the elite troops and Islamic State’s most hardened fighters has left the Old City so damaged that it is often hard to tell the difference between what constitutes indoors and outdoors.
Iraqi forces stormed the Old City, the ultimate target of an eight-month-old campaign to capture Mosul, nine days ago. On Monday they captured the neighborhood of al-Faruq, facing the Hadba minaret and the adjoining al-Nuri mosque, and on Tuesday they retook al-Mashahda neighborhood, the military said.
Like the historic districts of great Arab capitals such as Cairo and Damascus, Mosul’s Old City holds market stalls, a few mosques and churches, and small houses built and rebuilt on top of each other over the ages.
Most of its stone structures date from the medieval period, but some are older. Modernization initiatives and long…