Iraqi forces said on Monday they had taken more territory from the Islamic State group as they press an offensive that has seen them recapture a third of west Mosul and trap jihadists inside.
A renewed push launched on March 5 has forced IS out of several neighbourhoods and key sites, including the main local government headquarters and the famed Mosul museum, tightening the noose around fighters there.
West Mosul is the most populated urban area still held by the jihadists, followed by Syria’s Raqa, which is also a key target in the US-led anti-IS campaign.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command announced additional gains today, saying that forces from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service had recaptured west Mosul’s Al-Nafat neighbourhood.
Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat said that forces from the Rapid Response Division, another special-forces unit, and the federal police were working to search and clear territory on the edge of Mosul’s Old City.
The forces are conducting “combing and search operations in the liberated areas of Bab al-Toub, searching for traps and mines and terrorists hiding among the people,” Jawdat said in a statement.
Mosul’s Old City—a warren of narrow streets and closely spaced buildings where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still reside—could see some of the toughest fighting of the campaign to retake Iraq’s second city.
While CTS and Rapid Response are spearheading the advance inside Mosul, Iraqi army forces and pro-government paramilitaries are fighting IS to the west.
Soldiers from the 9th Armoured Division scored a key victory on Saturday night when they cut the last road out of west Mosul, said Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the international anti-IS coalition.
“Any of the fighters who are left in Mosul, they’re going to die there, because they’re trapped,” McGurk told journalists in Baghdad.
“We are very committed to not just defeating them in Mosul, but making sure these guys cannot escape,” he said.
In practice, IS fighters may still be able to sneak in and out of the city in small numbers, but the lack of access to roads makes larger-scale movement and resupply more difficult, if not impossible.
“We now believe that we are killing so many of their fighters that they are not able to replace them. That was not the case even a year ago,” said McGurk, putting the toll for IS leaders at 180 dead.
In Syria, the US-led coalition is backing an Arab-Kurdish alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces that is pushing towards the jihadists’ de facto capital Raqa.
IS clashed on Monday with the SDF on the north bank of the Euphrates River in Raqa province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which did not provide a toll.
Eight civilians were among 19 people killed on Sunday in suspected US-led air strikes four kilometres south of Raqa, said the monitor.