Iraqi forces eye key bridge in Mosul in next step of offensive

Government forces made steady progress in the week since they launched a major push on the western side of the city, where an estimated 2,000 ISIL fighters are holding out and 750,000 civilians are trapped.

Iraqi army soldiers helping displaced civilians as they flee their homes due to fighting between Iraqi security forces and ISIL militants, on the western side of Mosul, Iraq, on February 26. 2017. Khalid Mohammed/AP Photo
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Mosul // Iraqi forces battled towards a key bridge in west Mosul on Sunday in an operation aimed setting up a route for reinforcements from the eastern half of the city that has already been retaken from ISIL.

“We had an important operation this morning to move towards the bridge,” said Colonel Falah Al Wabdan, from the interior ministry’s Rapid Response units that have spearheaded the breach into west Mosul, in the Jawsaq neighbourhood.

“We have moved past a large berm constructed by Daesh with tunnels underneath,” he said, adding that the area was heavily mined and that his forces had killed 44 extremists on Sunday alone.

Col Al Wabdan was referring to what is known as “the fourth bridge”, the southernmost of five bridges – all of which are damaged and unusable – across the Tigris river that divides the northern Iraqi city.

Government forces made steady progress in the week since they launched a major push on the western side of the city, where an estimated 2,000 ISIL fighters are holding out and 750,000 civilians are trapped.

Troops have already captured the southern and western accesses to western Mosul, dislodging militants from the airport, a military base, a power station and one residential district, Al Maamun, according to the military.

Commanders say they will soon complete the recapture of two other residential districts, Al Tayyaran and Jawsaq.

Col Al Wabdan said that securing the bank area near the fourth bridge would allow the army to build a floating bridge to the other side and increase pressure on the extremists.

“It is very important because if we take it, engineering units ... will be able to throw a bridge across from the left bank so we can move supplies and ammunition from the battlefield,” he said.

Bridging operations under fire are complex and perilous but Iraqi forces have been trained by the US military and successfully used that strategy before in the fight against ISIL.

A floating bridge assembled with US assistance over the Euphrates River was considered a turning point in the battle that eventually saw Iraqi forces retake the western city of Ramadi from ISIL a year ago.

Troops from the US-led coalition helping Iraq to take back territory seized by ISIL in 2014 have stepped up their involvement on the ground in recent weeks.

They are officially deployed in Iraq as trainers and advisers but have increasingly been drawn into combat and been more visible than ever on the front lines since the push on west Mosul was launched on February 19.

The western side of the city is a little smaller than the east but more densely populated and home to some areas considered traditional extremist strongholds.

It includes the Old City, where ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi made his only public appearance and proclaimed a “caliphate” in July 2014, and several of Mosul’s key landmarks.

Iraqi commanders expect the battle to be more difficult as they get closer to the old city in part because tanks and armoured vehicles cannot pass through its narrow alleyways.

Civilians trapped in west Mosul have in some cases been used as human shields by the extremists as they defend their last major bastion in Iraq.

“With the battle to retake western Mosul now in its second week, we are extremely concerned about the 800,000 or so still trapped in some of the most dire conditions,” said Karl Schembri, spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Food supplies have dwindled as fast as costs have soared, leaving many surviving on barely a meal a day.

Residents and medical workers say that the combined effect of malnutrition and the shortage of drugs is starting to kill the weakest.

The United Nations has planned for an exodus of at least 250,000 people from west Mosul but, in the absence of humanitarian corridors, only a few hundred have been able to flee so far.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters