Iraqi forces battling ISIS in Mosul seized control on Wednesday of the Iron Bridge that links the eastern sector with the militant-held Old City and were making a “steady advance” towards the Grand Mosque, federal police said.
Federal police and Interior Ministry Rapid Response units seized the bridge, a police statement said, quoting a commander. The government now holds three of the five bridges crossing the Tigris River which bisects Mosul.
“Our troops are now less than 800 meters from the mosque,” a federal police spokesman added.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the battle to drive ISIS from its last urban stronghold in Iraq was reaching its final stages.
Losing the city would be a huge blow to the militants as it has served as the group’s de facto capital since its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself head of a so-called “caliphate” spanning Iraq and Syria from the Grand Mosque in the summer of 2014.
Heavy fighting was reported around the Mosul Museum by journalists and combatants. An ISIS suicide car bomb exploded near the museum.
The intense combat, much of it street-by-street, marked a decisive stage in the battle for Mosul which started on Oct. 17 last year.
Iraqi officers said cloudy weather was hampering air cover on Wednesday morning.
Speaking at a news conference in Baghdad on Tuesday, Abadi warned ISIS militants that they must surrender or be killed although he also pledged to treat the militants’ families fairly.
“Let me be very clear, we will preserve families of ISIS who are civilians, but we will punish the terrorists and bring them to justice if they surrender,” he said. “They are cornered and if they will not surrender they will definitely get killed.”
However, many hard days of fighting could still lie ahead as government forces try to make headway in the streets and narrow alleyways of the Old City. ISIS militants have booby-trapped houses, and government forces will also be fighting amongst civilians, ruling out the extensive use of air and artillery support.
Residents have streamed out of western neighborhoods recaptured by the government, many desperately hungry and traumatized by living under ISIS’ hardline rule.
Nearly 100,000 Iraqis have fled the battle to retake west Mosul from ISIS, the International Organization for Migration said on Wednesday. West Mosul is the most populated urban area still held by ISIS, with an estimated 750,000 residents when the battle began.
Between February 25 and March 15, more than 97,000 people have been displaced from west Mosul, the IOM said on its official Twitter account.
It marks an increase of around 17,000 from the displacement figure the IOM released the previous day, though this does not necessarily indicate that all of those additional people fled in the past 24 hours.
As many as 600,000 civilians are still trapped with the militants inside Mosul. The Ministry of Immigration and Displacement said on Tuesday that in recent days, almost 13,000 displaced people from western Mosul had been given assistance and temporary accommodation each day, adding to the 200,000 already displaced.