Iraqi forces succeeded on Thursday in countering an attack launched by ISIS militants in the embattled city of Mosul, as an Iraqi commander said his troops are within 800 meters of the main government complex in the northern city, the capture of which would mark a symbolic victory against the terrorist group.
Maj. Gen Thamir al-Hussaini, of Iraq’s elite rapid response units, said his forces were advancing along the Tigris River after retaking one of the city’s five damaged bridges. He said the capture of the bridge could shorten supply lines and allow civilians in western Mosul, where heavy fighting is underway, to flee to the government-controlled eastern half of the city.
“In the coming day we will clear the government buildings,” he told reporters in Abu Saif, a village outside Mosul.
ISIS militants had launched an attack to counter advancing US-backed Iraqi forces in western Mosul during an overnight storm, as the battle intensified for control of the militants’ last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
Explosions and gun fire rang out across the city’s southwestern districts in the early hours of Thursday.
A senior Iraqi officer told Reuters ISIS staged its attack on units from the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) when the storm hampered air surveillance and on-the-ground visibility. He said some ISIS militants hid amongst displaced families to get close to the US-trained troops.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris River on Feb. 19.
Defeating ISIS in Mosul would crush the Iraqi wing of the alleged “caliphate” declared by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2014, from Mosul’s grand old Nuri mosque.
Residents reported that civilians were killed in an air strike on an ISIS-run mosque on Wednesday, highlighting the perilous situation facing hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents as the allied forces step up their campaign.
The Iraqi military believes several thousand militants, including many who traveled from Western countries, are hunkered down in Mosul among the remaining civilian population, which aid agencies estimated to number 750,000 at the start of the latest offensive.
The militants are using suicide car bombers, snipers and booby traps to counter the offensive waged by the 100,000-strong force of Iraqi troops, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iranian-trained Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups.
More than 28,000 civilians have been forced from their homes in western Mosul since the Feb. 19 offensive began, while the total number displaced since the battle for Mosul started in October exceeds 176,000, according to the United Nations.
On Thursday, more than a thousand more streamed out southern Mosul, the majority on foot. Some said the militants fired at them as they crossed a defensive trench.
Meanwhile, Kurdish forces have seized an oil facility in Kirkuk to send a message to the Iraqi government to build a refinery, Kurdish official Aso Mamand told Reuters on Thursday.
Oil flows from the facility have resumed after being temporarily disrupted, an official at Iraq’s North Oil Company said.
However, Mamand said Kurdish forces would stop flows again unless their demands were met within a week.