Iraq says it has split ISIS’ last stronghold in the country in half

Almost three months to the day after Iraqi forces set off on their offensive to recapture the city of Mosul from ISIS fighters, Baghdad says it has retaken the eastern half of the city, splitting the terrorist group’s last Iraqi stronghold down the middle.

On Wednesday, Iraqi Staff Gen. Talib al-Sheghati, head of the elite Counter Terrorism Service that has spearheaded fighting in eastern Mosul, announced “the liberation … of the left bank” of the Tigris River, which runs north-south and divides the city.

The campaign against ISIS in Mosul has advanced quickly in the weeks since the new year. Iraqi forces had seen their progress slow at the end of 2016, and they went into an “operational refit” during the final days of the year.

Sheghati called the success of Iraqi forces so far in 2017 “unprecedented.”

While initial reports had the government saying it was in “full control” of the eastern half of Mosul, the CTS chief said ISIS fighters remain in some northeastern districts of the city. According to an Iraqi military statement, government forces were still clashing with ISIS militants in the Qadiya 2 and al-Arabi districts in northeast Mosul.

US advisers have also taken a more active role in the campaign in recent weeks, venturing closer to the front to support Iraqi forces, though US personnel “remain behind the forward line of [Iraqi] troops.”

Mosul Iraq Tigris River bridges
Mosul, outlined in red, was connected by five bridges, show in black, that have been damaged or destroyed during fighting in the city. Google Maps

ISIS still controls all of Mosul’s districts west of the Tigris. However, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said late on Tuesday that the terrorist group had been greatly weakened by the offensive, and Iraqi forces had been “moving” on ISIS in the western part of the city, though he did not elaborate on what that entailed.

While the Counter Terrorism Service has led the advance in eastern Mosul, the Iraqi army has deployed from the north, while federal police are operating south of the city. Earlier this week, federal-police forces retook portions of the southeast river bank and captured a highway that linked Mosul to Kirkuk, a city to the southeast.

Mosul residents who spoke to Reuters by phone said airstrikes on ISIS fighters and positions deep in the western half of Mosul had increased over the last few days.

One source in the city told Reuters that over a dozen missile strikes had hit the Yarmouk district, aiming for weapons depots and workshops used by ISIS to make explosives.

The source also said the strikes destroyed two car bombs, which have become one of ISIS’ most frequently deployed weapons amid the close-quarters fighting in Mosul’s streets and alleys.

Recent strikes in western Mosul have reportedly killed civilians. One raid targeting a senior ISIS figure is said to have killed up to 30 people last week. Those casuality reports have not been verified, however, nor is it clear if they were Iraqi or coalition-led strikes.

More than a million civilians were in Mosul when the operation to liberate it began. Since then, fighting has pressed on through neighbourhoods and sometimes through homes, about 150,000 people have fled the city, and a similar number have been left homeless.

Reports this week indicated that thousands of families have recently fled neighbourhoods in the city where ISIS control has been lifted, though the militant group reportedly executed 23 people who were trying to escape from areas still under the group’s control.

The dense warren of narrow alleys and ancient markets and buildings that make of the western half of the city seem to ensure that fighting their will be as complex and likely more deadly — for fighters and civilians alike — than the struggle to retake eastern Mosul.

ISIS captured Mosul in summer 2014, when the group swept through northern Iraq. Retaking the city would eject ISIS from its last urban stronghold in the country and likely mean the end of the group’s caliphate.

In addition, saying Iraqi forces were moving on western Mosul, al-Abadi said he would like to a “thorough investigation” of the decisions and events that led US forces from “liberating” Iraq in 2003 from Saddam (Hussein’s) terrorist regime to “occupying” the country until 2011.

The Iraqi prime minister said the invasion destabilized Iraq and “led to chaos” that endures until now, opening the country to “all terrorist groups from all over the world to enter.”

In what the Associated Press noted may have been a comment meant for the Trump administration, al-Abadi also said he hoped “Iraqis will be compensated for the tragedies and catastrophes they endured.”

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