US-backed offenses against the ISIS terror group in Iraq and Syria made advances on Monday as Iraqi forces closed in on government buildings and fighters in Syria seized a key supply route to Raqqa.
In Iraq, US-backed Iraqi forces captured the second of Mosul’s five bridges, giving a boost to their onslaught on ISIS’ remaining stronghold in the western part of the embattled city.
All of Mosul’s five bridges over the Tigris have been destroyed but their capture facilitates the movement of forces progressing alongside the river, which cuts Mosul in two. The bridge seized, al-Hurriya, is the second after one located further south. Its capture shields the back of the forces advancing toward a nearby government buildings complex.
“We control the western end of the bridge,” said a senior media officer with Rapid Response, the elite unit of the Interior Ministry leading the charge toward the complex.
Recapturing the site would help Iraqi forces attack the militants in the old city. It would also mark a symbolic step towards restoring state authority over Mosul, even though the buildings are destroyed and not being used by ISIS. The battle of Mosul, which started on Oct. 17, will enter a more complicated phase in the densely populated old city.
“In the coming hours our forces will raise the Iraqi flag over the governorate building,” Federal Police Brigadier General Shaalan Ali Saleh told Reuters.
The militants have barricaded streets with civilian vehicles and rigged them with explosives to hinder the advance of Iraqi forces were also met with sniper, machinegun and mortar fire, as well as explosives dropped from light drones. Federal Police units who are also taking part in the offensive are using similar drones to hit the militants.
The Iraqi military believes several thousand militants, including many who traveled from Western and central Asian countries, are hunkered down among the remaining civilian population, which aid agencies estimated to number 750,000 in western Mosul 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 fighters and Iranian-trained Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups.
More than 40,000 fled their homes in the past week, bringing the total number of those of displaced since the start of the offensive to nearly 210,000, according to the United Nations.
In Syria, US-backed forces on Monday cut off a key supply route between ISIS stronghold Raqqa and the group’s territory in Deir Ezzor province.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, seized control of the only major road linking Raqqa along the Euphrates valley to Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
“The route… linking Raqqa to Deir Ezzor was cut this morning,” an SDF commander confirmed.
The SDF launched its offensive for Raqqa in early November and has since seized swathes of territory in northern Syria from the jihadists. Its forces made a major incursion into the oil-rich Deir Ezzor province last month, in a drive to encircle and besiege the militants in Raqqa.
Deir Ezzor province lies just east of Raqqa and is almost completely held by ISIS. The jihadists also hold most of the provincial capital of the same name, and have been battling regime forces to overrun the city.
The SDF alliance, dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has benefitted from air support, equipment and training provided by the US-led coalition that has been carrying out air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Around 66,000 people have fled the fighting in Syria’s north in recent days, UN humanitarian agency OCHA said.