US-backed Iraqi forces said they took control of a main bridge over the Tigris river on Wednesday and advanced towards the grand mosque of Mosul.
At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq.
It was the mosque of Mosul where al-Baghdadi declared his Caliphate and named himself as the ruler of all Muslims from Mosul’s Great Mosque after his forces swept through northern Iraq in 2014.
However, ISIS’s territory is shrinking rapidly since last year as the US-led coalition, the Turkish-backed forces, and the Russian-backed Assad regime forces have fierce fights against its forces in both Syria and Iraq.
The United States is providing air and ground support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces trying to dislodge the hardline group from Mosul.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19.
Islamic State militants who retreated across the Tigris river to western districts also regularly target civilian areas under government control in the east with mortars and grenades dropped from drones.
Several thousand militants, including many who traveled from Western countries to join up, are believed to be in Mosul among a remaining civilian population estimated at the start of the offensive at 750,000.
They are using mortars, sniper fire, booby traps and suicide car bombs to fight the offensive carried out by a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, regional Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iranian-trained Shi’ite paramilitary groups.
Third bridge retrieved
The seizure of the Iron Bridge, linking eastern Mosul with the militant-held Old City on the west side, means the government holds three of the five bridges over the Tigris and bolsters Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s assertion that the battle is reaching its final stages.
The bridge, which was damaged in fighting late last year, was captured by federal police and Interior Ministry Rapid Response units, a police statement said.
“Our troops are making a steady advance … and we are now less than 800 meters from the mosque,” a federal police spokesman said.
According to Iraqi forces and their allies have been making steady progress in the city, forcing ISIS out of a series of neighborhoods and retaking important sites such as the airport, Mosul museum, train station and provincial government headquarters.
However, as Iraqi forces fight Islamic State militants deeper into western Mosul, they face increasingly stiff resistance, with the jihadists using mortar and sniper fire to try to hold off a U.S.-backed offensive to drive them out of their last major stronghold in the country.
The fight has taken its toll of dead and wounded on Iraqi soldiers, special forces and police units. The military has not published the number of its own casualties.
Islamic State’s tactics, which include taking cover among the civilian population, have also slowed advances in some areas, the closer the battle gets to the more crowded city center.
Hundreds of thousands flee
As fighting intensified on Tuesday, civilians streamed out of western neighborhoods recaptured by the government. Some pushed children and sick elderly relatives in handcarts and wheelbarrows.
Soldiers packed them into trucks on the Mosul-Baghdad highway to be taken to processing areas.
As many as 600,000 civilians are caught with the militants inside Mosul, which Iraqi forces have effectively sealed off from the remaining territory that Islamic State controls in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi forces include army, special forces, Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’ite militias.
More than 200,000 Mosul residents have been displaced since the start of the campaign in October. The Ministry of Immigration and Displacement said on Tuesday that in recent days, almost 13,000 displaced people from western Mosul had been received seeking assistance and temporary accommodation each day.
That number may still rise sharply. The United Nations last month warned that more than 400,00 people, more than half the remaining population in western Mosul, could be displaced. Fears of more chemical attacks are driving some people out.
“up to 450,000 are expected to make their way to the camps,” Lise Grande, humanitarian coordinator for the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, said.
One civilian said that mortar rounds were falling as they fled. They took advantage of the army retaking their district to get out.
“ISIS wanted us to move to their areas but we escaped when the army arrived,” he said.
The World Health Organization has set up multiple trauma stabilizing points (TSP), as close to the frontlines as possible, Grande said. There, wounded civilians are given emergency care before being transporting to the nearest hospital.
“What is striking about this crisis is that half of the casualties are civilians,” said Grande.”TSP areas have had to dramatically expand. We were not expecting this amount of casualties.”
Out of the entire IDP population at the refugee camps, 56 percent are children under 18.
There are about 1,000 unaccompanied children who have been separated from their families while attempting to flee since the offensive on western Mosul began, said Grande. “They [unaccompanied children] are the most vulnerable. They require the most intensive care we provide.”