IS seals off area of symbolic mosque in Mosul's Old City

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BAGHDAD (AP) - Islamic State group militants have blocked the area around a highly symbolic mosque in Mosul's Old City where the group's leader made his first and only public appearance, a resident said on Thursday, as US -backed Iraqi forces pushed to recapture the city's remaining pockets. The forces also ousted ISIS from the villages of Wadi al-Midar and Taru.

The Hashd al-Shaabi's progress comes as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also commander of the Iraqi armed forces, is in Mosul "to oversee liberation operations" and meet with Iraqi military commanders of the Iraqi special forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces, as the Shiite force is also known.

"Baaj is a strategical town for Daesh as it is the last supply line" linking IS with Syria, said Sheikh Sami al-Masoudi, a PMF leader, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

By afternoon, a brigade from the PMF reached the Syrian border for the first time, taking Um Jrais village, al-Masoudi later said.

The move follows a push by the government-sanctioned forces to retake a number of small villages and key supply lines from the Islamic State group in the vast deserts west of Mosul.

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The fighters plan to "erect a dirt barricade and dig a trench" along the border, said Sheikh Sami al-Masoudi, a PMF leader, describing how the forces would secure the porous border area that has always been a haven for smugglers and insurgent activity.

On the Syrian side of the border, US -backed Syrian Democratic Forces, IS militants and Syrian rebels are fighting for territory. Mosul's Old City is an ancient district of narrow alleyways and tightly packed homes, two main challenges to security forces. The attack was the first such close confrontation between America troops and fighters backing Assad.

The United Nations has said that up to 200,000 civilians may still be in IS-held areas of Mosul, a lot of them in the Old City which lies immediately south of where the current fighting is taking place.

The fall of the city would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate" declared in 2014 over parts of Iraq and Syria by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in speech from a historic mosque in Mosul's old city.

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