Elite Iraqi forces announced on Wednesday they have taken “full control” of eastern Mosul, after driving ISIS militants from all districts they were tasked with recapturing almost exactly three months since the major operation started.
Lieutenant-General Talib Shaghati said the Counter Terrorism Services (CTS), who have spearheaded the offensive against ISIS in the northern Iraqi city, had taken control of the eastern bank of the Tigris river.
The achievement was a “big victory,” said Iraqi Army Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, who commands the counter-terrorism forces, describing the success of the Iraqi forces as “unprecedented.
Regular army troops were still fighting the ultra-hardline militants in northeast Mosul, however, according to a military statement.
“Today we celebrate … the liberation of the eastern bank in Mosul,” Shaghati told reporters in the nearby town of Bartella.
Shaghatai said plans were now being drawn up to retake the western part of the city. He said that capturing the western half of the city, which the jihadists still fully control, would be an easier task. Officers have previously said that the more densely populated west bank could pose additional military challenges.
Wednesday’s advance came after Iraqi troops over the past days intensified their push into the last ISIS-held neighborhoods in Mosul’s eastern sector, closing in on the Tigris River, which roughly divides the city. Stiff resistance by the militants, thousands of civilians being trapped in their houses by the fighting and bad weather had in the past slowed the advances of the troops.
Bridges across the Tigris river, which bisects Mosul from north to south, have been hit by U.S.-led air strikes intended to impede ISIS reinforcements joining the fighting in the eastern neighborhoods, and more recently by the militants trying to block a future westward advance by the military.
If the U.S.-backed campaign is successful it will likely spell the end of the Iraqi side of the ultra-hardline group’s self-styled caliphate, which also extends deep into neighboring Syria.
The army, Special Forces and elite police units have operated in tandem to capture different areas of eastern Mosul. The army is mostly deployed in the north, the CTS in the east, and the federal police in the south.
Army units advanced into the northeastern neighborhoods of Qadiya 2 and al-Arabi, the military statement said.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said late on Tuesday that ISIS had been severely weakened in the Mosul campaign, and that the military had begun “moving” against it in western Mosul, without elaborating. The western half of the city is home to some of Mosul’s oldest neighborhoods, with narrow streets packed with buildings that will further complicate the urban fight.
Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city and the ISIS group’s last urban stronghold in the country — fell to ISIS in the summer of 2014, when the militant group captures large swaths of northern and western Iraq.
The operation has also left more than 148,000 people homeless, according to the United Nations. Nearly 12,500 people have been forced to flee their homes just over the past week, the U.N. said.
More than 1 million people were estimated to still be living in Mosul in October, when Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake the city.