Iraqi Forces Close in on Mosque Where Baghdadi Declared Himself ISIS Caliph

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi makes a public appearance at a mosque in Mosul, Iraq, according to a video posted online on July 5, 2014. Reuters/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

Iraqi coalition forces fighting to oust the Islamic State militant group ISIS from the city of Mosul have turned their sights onto a street in the Old City that is around the corner from the famed mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State a caliphate and he its head.

Security forces reached the Old City several weeks ago but face tough resistance from ISIS fighters who have responded with suicide car bombs, ambushes and sniper fire.

The new offensive targets Faruq Street, near the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, according to a statement by Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, the commander of the Iraqi federal police, released on Monday and reported by AFP news agency.

"Federal Police and Rapid Response Division units began to advance today on the southwestern axis of the Old City," Jawdat said.

It was there on July 4, 2014, that Baghdadi clad in black clothes and turban, appeared in a 21-minute video filmed at the mosque, which is named after 12th century Turkic ruler Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi. On that day Baghdadi declared the founding of an Islamic caliphate and he its caliph.

"The mujahideen (those engaged in jihad) have been awarded victory by God after years of jihad, and they were able to achieve their aim and hurried to announce the caliphate and choose the Imam," Baghdadi said in the video. It is the only time that Baghdadi, while serving as ISIS's caliph, has appeared in a video. Iraqi officials believe he has fled the city, moving across the Iraqi-Syrian border, and is somewhere between al-Hajin in Syria and al-Ba'aj in Iraq.

It was the culmination of years of efforts by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a previous incarnation of ISIS, to consolidate territory in the country. Baghdadi's new group had gone even further, achieving a mini-state that crosses the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The group's territorial hold has since dwindled, with ground forces backed by the U.S.-led coalition forcing the group into retreat after a series of defeats. It is struggling to retain control of its two biggest prizes: Mosul, and the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa.

Reports of hundreds of civilian deaths in a U.S.-led coalition airstrike on March 17, which the coalition admitted had likely taken place on Saturday, brought the offensive to a brief halt, but resumed again on Monday.

The coalition said it had targeted ISIS personnel "at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties." In a statement, the Pentagon said: "The coalition respects human life, which is why we are assisting our Iraqi partner forces in their effort to liberate their lands from ISIS brutality." Iraqi Vice President Osama Nujaifi called the incident a "humanitarian disaster."

The loss of Mosul's Great Mosque, which features a leaning minaret, would represent a significant strategic victory for the Iraqi coalition, and a blow to ISIS's prestige.

The operation to recapture the city that the jihadist group overran in June 2014 is now focused on west Mosul with the city's east liberated, but thousands of civilians remain trapped under ISIS control and remain in danger.