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Displaced Iraqis make their way to get into Hamam al-Alil camp, on a rainy day, south of Mosul, Iraq March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

(reuters_tickers)

By Patrick Markey

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Heavy rain slowed Iraqi government forces battling Islamic State on Thursday around Mosul's Old City, where militants holed up in narrow alleyways and homes resisted with sniper fire, suicide attacks and car bombs.

Troops from the federal police and elite Rapid Response units were about 500 m (yards) from the al-Nuri Mosque from where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria in 2014.

The black jihadist flag was clearly visible draped from the mosque's famous leaning minaret.

The army and security forces have made significant gains in recent days in the battle that started in October, seizing a main bridge over the Tigris river and advancing towards the mosque.

"We are holding positions we took yesterday. There is a lot of resistance in that area with snipers and car bombs," Federal Police Major General Haider Dhirgham told Reuters on Thursday.

The capture of al-Nuri Mosque would be a huge symbolic victory as well as a concrete gain.

"It's important for them, it's where they declared their state," Dhirgham said.

Mosul has been the hardline group's main urban stronghold in Iraq but they have steadily lost ground since the offensive began and Iraqi leaders say the battle is reaching its final stages.

Earlier on Thursday, government forces had been attempting to encircle the Old City to bottle up Islamic State fighters. Several more areas of western Mosul had been recaptured, including the hospital, over Wednesday and Thursday morning but officers said progress was slowed by car bombs and booby-traps in houses and alleyways. Then the advance was put on hold due to bad weather.

Islamic State hit back with sporadic attacks on government positions, including mortar fire. Government forces responded with mortars and helicopter gunships strafed militant positons from above.

Police said they had killed nine militants who tried to counter-attack one of their positions with rocket-propelled grenades.

DIFFICULT TERRAIN

A Federal Police officer said commanders were meeting to adjust their plans for tackling the Old City.

"The new offensive plans should adapt with the difficult terrain of the complicated, narrow alleys," he said. "The tight roads prevent us from using armoured vehicles and that will definitely leave our soldiers vulnerable to enemy fire. New plans under study will tackle this issue."

The need to ensure the safety of civilians, many of them hungry from a lack of provisions and traumatized by living under Islamic State's harsh rule, was also a priority.

As many as 6,000 Islamic State fighters remained in Mosul, including other Aran nationalities and foreigners, Dhirgham said, talking inside the city at a police forward base as refugees trudged through the muddy streets and wrecked houses.

Islamic State suicide bombers had driven explosive-rigged cars at troops, he said. There had been three such attacks on Thursday morning. Troops has also seized buildings in which suicide vehicles were being prepared.

"The enemy ... has started to set fire to houses which means that are on the retreat. They have destroyed homes and have destroyed families," Dhirgham said.

Mosul has served as Islamic State's de facto capital since Baghdadi proclaimed himself head of a caliphate in July 2014.

Its recapture by the government would drive the remnants of the Islamic State army into the hinterlands. It is also under pressure in neighbouring Syria, where three separate forces are advancing on Raqqa, the main Syrian city under Islamic State control.

As well as waging jihad in Iraq and Syria, the militants have inspired attacks in cities in Europe, Africa and elsewhere that have killed hundreds of civilians.

U.S. and other Western countries have been providing air, artillery and other support to the Mosul offensive, reflecting the international concern over the Islamic State threat.

However, the presence of tens of thousands of civilians in Islamic State-held areas means that simply pulverising them is a risky proposition. Thousands of residents have escaped to government lines in recent days but it has been impossible to tally the number of civilian casualties.

"We will liberate civilians before liberating the land," Dhirgham said.

"I expect the liberation of Mosul completely in one month. I will not tell you one or two weeks, because that's not true, but within one or two months it will be completely liberated."

(Additonal reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Angus MacSwan in Erbil; Editing by Alison Williams)

Reuters