MOSUL, Iraq/BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi special forces battling Islamic State reached the eastern bank of the Tigris river in Mosul yesterday for the first time in a three-month, U.S-backed offensive to capture the city from the militants, who still control its entire western half.
The group also claimed attacks at two Baghdad markets in which 20 people were killed, the latest in a spate of bombings, tactics to which Islamic State is resorting as it comes under pressure in Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq.
Units of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) have fought their way to the eastern bank of the Tigris, spokesman Sabah al-Numan said.
It was the first time Iraqi troops in the city itself have reached the river, which bisects Mosul, since the offensive to drive out Islamic State was launched in October. Iraqi forces already control the Tigris to Mosul’s south.
They are not expected to push across the river without first recapturing the rest of the eastern districts, and in fact all the bridges have been taken out of service by air strikes.
But reaching the eastern bank shows the accelerated pace of the latest Iraqi advance, which has made daily gains since restarting 10 days ago.
Brett McGurk, Washington’s envoy to the U.S.-led coalition backing the Iraqi offensive, said in a tweet that Islamic State’s defences in eastern Mosul were “showing signs of collapse”.
The CTS has spearheaded advances inside Mosul as part of a 100,000-strong force backed by U.S. air power of Iraqi troops, Kurdish fighters and Shi’ite militias fighting the militants. After a period of stuttering advances in Mosul last month, Iraqi forces have gained momentum in a new push since around the start of the year.
CTS forces also clashed with Islamic State fighters near a historic site in eastern Mosul, a senior commander said, in a bid to drive them out of more neighbourhoods.
“This morning CTS troops advanced in two directions towards the Baladiyat and Sukkar districts,” Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi said.
“During the advance, Daesh (Islamic State) tried to confront us from the historic hill,” he said, referring to an elevated area near the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, east of the river and inside Mosul.
Saadi said Iraqi forces and warplanes from the international coalition “dealt with” Islamic State fighters positioned on the hill, and dozens were killed.