Mosul, Iraq/Baghdad: Iraqi special forces battling ISIS reached the eastern bank of the Tigris river in Mosul on Sunday for the first time in a three-month, US-backed offensive to capture the city from militants, who still control its entire western half.
The terrorist group has claimed responsibility for attacks at two markets in Baghdad which killed 20 people, the latest in a spate of bombings which ISIS is resorting to 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 ISIS 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, 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 ten days ago.
Brett McGurk, Washington’s envoy to the US-led coalition backing the Iraqi offensive, said in a tweet that ISIS’s defenses 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 US 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 ISIS 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 (ISIS) 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” ISIS fighters positioned on the hill and dozens were killed.
A series of air strikes sent plumes of smoke into the sky as rockets fired by Iraqi forces whizzed through the air. Sustained bursts of gunfire around midday eased as night approached.
Hundreds of civilians fled their homes in nearby Muthanna as Iraqi forces recaptured the city in an unprecedented nighttime air strike raid, crossing a tributary of the Tigris via a makeshift bridge made from dirt.
Mohamed, a 35-year-old resident, said his family had locked themselves in their house for the past ten days to avoid being forced by ISIS to retreat deeper into the city. They walked about three km across the front lines on Sunday despite mortar fire from the retreating militants.
“There is no bridge, the bridge is destroyed. There is a dirt thing below the bridge. We transported our belongings and our women and our families,” said Mohamed.
Life in eastern districts recaptured from ISIS in recent weeks has regained a semblance of normalcy. Traffic wound through the streets just a few kilometres from heavy clashes and reopened grocery stores again dot block corners.
Government supplied electricity has been cut off many in areas but residents have begun using small generators. In some districts, they are cleaning the roads and rebuilding brick walls.
A hospital complex in the southeastern district of Wahda, which Iraqi forces recaptured a day earlier has suffered heavy damage due to a sustained coalition air strike and a fierce ISIS counter-attack a month ago.
Much of the facility is burned out, some parts mined with explosives left by the militants. Blood stains cover the wall of one room which soldiers said ISIS had used for executions.
In Baghdad, a suicide attacker killed 13 people when he drove an explosives-rigged car into vegetable market in the mainly Shi’ite populated eastern district of Jamila, police said. ISIS has claimed responsibility in an online statement, saying it had targeted a ‘gathering of Shi’ites’.
A few hours later, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest blew himself up at a market in another mostly Shi’ite district of Baladiyat, killing seven according to police and medical sources.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for this attack as well, according to the US-based SITE Intelligence Group.
More than 80 people have been killed in just over a week in attacks in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq.
Iraq’s Kurdish regional government said in a statement on Sunday that Kurdish and coalition forces killed an ISIS operative in a joint operation near the city of Kirkuk on January 5.
The operation took place in Hawija, the statement said. ISIS has a smaller presence in the area.