Telegraph - Soon after sunrise a large dark circle of smoke appeared like a halo over the Old City of Mosul - a sign to advancing troops that Isil was not about to give it up without a fight.
The Iraqi army had hoped to surprise the jihadists by launching an operation to recapture the historic quarter under cover of darkness on Thursday night.
But Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had a surprise of their own - burning miles of cloth sheets that had been covering the market, cars and even houses just as daylight broke, to obscure the view of coalition warplanes.
Then came their counterattack. Waves of suicide car bombs and mortar fire so fierce the elite police units were forced to turn back and hold their position on the outskirts.
"Just when you think they are looking weak, they come back stronger," said Serg Alaa Hassan, watching from a position two miles south of Mosul.
The battle for the Old City is expected to be the toughest yet. Densely populated with narrow streets, troops will have to abandon their humvees for house-to-house fighting.
Some 50,000 civilians have fled since the offensive on western Mosul began last month. But more than half a million are thought to still be trapped in the 25 per cent of the city still held by Isil.
The Daily Telegraph has seen thousands of residents fleeing in the past two days, who have told of being used as human shields by the jihadists who threatened them with death if they tried to escape.
Many had hunkered down in the basement of their homes for days without food or water as the battle raged between Isil and the army above them.
On Friday they walked wearily through the wreckage of burned-out cars and craters in the al-Mansour neighbourhood and up the hill to a screening centre where men were separated from women and children and loaded onto trucks.
One woman picked up her baby and lifted his t-shirt - his ribs clearly visible and his stomach concave. "I have had nothing and so I haven’t been producing milk,” Umm Laith, 26, said.
Her older children ran to the soldiers who were handing out bread, but her infant son was too weak to eat the scraps they brought back.
The Iraqi army, under pressure to finish the operation by summer, have been storming through neighbourhoods at a rate of one every few days.
This week they captured the provincial government buildings, the central bank branch and a museum where militants had filmed themselves destroying priceless statues in 2015.
They are now just a matter of yards from the al-Nouri mosque, where Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" in his only public appearance in July 2014.
But their speed has cost them.
They were forced to retreat earlier this week after attempting to take the government buildings with too few fighters, repeating a mistake that got as many as 100 of their men killed at the al-Salam hospital in the eastern side of the city in December.
Three months after being liberated, Isil is still launching attacks on the eastern side of the city, which is split in two by the Tigris river. A suicide bomber blew himself up inside a restaurant last month, killing four and wounding dozens.
Yesterday militants in the west fired rockets at two mosques in the east, where hundreds had gathered for Friday prayers.
The Daily Telegraph could not immediately confirm the number of injured.
"Daesh knows they are losing and are lashing out at freed areas to punish the people,” said Serg Hassan, using the Arabic name for the group. "They will not win this war, but it about saving the lives of as many people as we can before they are defeated.”