By Louisa Loveluck, Aaso Ameen Shwan
Iraqi forces edged through the final roads and alleyways of Isis (Islamic State) territory in the city of Mosul today as dazed and malnourished civilians were evacuated to safety.
The militants are cornered in a sliver of land in the western Old City, and commanders say they expect to declare victory against Isis here by the end of the week.
General Sami Al-Aridhi, a commander with the Counter Terrorism Service, said his troops were advancing on foot through the Old City's winding maze of streets.
"It's a battle inside alleyways against an enemy that commits to no ethics," he said.
Elite Iraqi rapid-response units were calling in US-led coalition airstrikes at close quarters as Iraqi special forces moved door to door, evacuating civilians who had cowered in their homes through the final, terrifying assault.
Dozens of those families crossed the Tigris River in the beds of pickup trucks as temperatures soared to 122 degrees.
Disembarking to meet aid workers at an abandoned fairground, they looked exhausted. Some were holding back tears. Others crouched over their bags and cried.
"There was no food, no water; we had nothing. We were so scared," said Hana'a Ashifa, a mother of four evacuated from the Old City. "When we finally heard the security forces, my mother looked at me, picked up our white flag and said: 'It's time to go.'"
More than 400,000 people have fled Mosul's western districts since May 10, according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands more are still thought to be trapped.
Mosul was the largest city in Isis' shrinking caliphate, and its recapture by Iraqi forces is supported by a campaign of coalition airstrikes.
Commanders said that fighting in the Old City is now taking place at such close quarters that Iraqi special forces have been able to lob grenades at the militants.
In July 2014, the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, stood in the pulpit of Mosul's medieval Great Mosque of al-Nuri, declaring a "caliphate" spanning parts of Syria and Iraq and calling sympathisers to join it.
Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared an end to the group's "state of falsehood," after militants destroyed the mosque as Iraqi forces closed in.
Bustle has returned to much of the city's east, with shops reopened across the relatively undamaged eastern quarters. Hardware and sweet shops ran a steady trade as the sound of US-led coalition airstrikes echoed in the distance.
That sense of security remains fragile. Local police said this week that while they had foiled several attacks by Isis sleeper cells in Mosul's eastern quarters, the militants have also launched counterattacks in the more recently recaptured west.
"With the fighting intensifying, we know they will send more," said Lieutenant Colonel Mazin Abdullah, a spokesman.
Aid groups said this week that hundreds of civilians had been killed or wounded in the fight for the Old City.
I saw so many bodies, I lost children, I lost my husband
"They have been caught between aerial bombardment, artillery, snipers and car bombs. They live in fear; they hide in their homes without food or water," said Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
That fight was visible on the bodies of women and children freed today. Shrapnel laced the faces of several young girls. Parents described shelling that had hit their homes directly, wounding those inside without options for treatment.
"Our medical teams have been treating 50 to 60 casualties per day. The hospitals are overwhelmed," said Jaquemet.
The United Nations warned last month that Isis fighters are using the last civilians under their control as human shields. Residents say the militants have shot families as they tried to flee, leaving bodies to rot in the baking heat.
Dwindling food and water supplies have weakened those still trapped in homes and basements. Many of the babies evacuated to east Mosul this week appeared malnourished.
Some were unresponsive to their mother's affections, seemingly too weak to move.
"I saw so many bodies, I lost children, I lost my husband," cried one woman, clutching her child tight as she shepherded older boys and girls to a patch of shade.
"We have walked out of hell."