South of Mosul, Feb 27: Iraqi forces battling the Islamic State group in west Mosul reached the city's southernmost bridge on Monday, a key step in efforts to defeat the jihadists in their stronghold, a spokesman said.
The move, a little more than a week into a major push on Mosul's west bank, could allow Iraqi forces to extend a floating bridge between the city's two halves and pile pressure on the jihadists.
"The Rapid Response force and the federal police have liberated Jawsaq neighbourhood and now control the western end of the fourth bridge," Brigadier General Yahya Rasool told AFP.
The spokesman for the joint operations command was referring to the southernmost of five bridges, all of which are damaged and unusable, across the Tigris River that divides the northern Iraqi city.
"That means the bridge is under control on both sides," said Rasool.
Government forces retook the east bank from IS a month ago, completing a key phase in an offensive on Mosul that began on October 17 and has involved tens of thousands of fighters. Engineering units will be expected to deploy a so-called 'ribbon bridge' across the Tigris that will allow to connect the western side's active front lines to the already retaken east bank.
Rasool said that the interior ministry's rapid response force had now fully retaken two neighbourhoods on the west bank, while forces from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service have retaken another further west.
"The street fighting is intense, these are populated neighbourhoods," Rasool said.
"But our forces are fighting deep in the west, the enemy is broken," he added.
Nearly a month after wresting back full control of the city's east bank from the jihadists, Iraqi forces launched a fresh push on the western side, which is a little smaller but very densely populated. They made quick initial gains, blitzing through the last open areas south of the city limits, facing limited resistance from IS as they took back the airport and a nearby military base.
IS fighters have hunkered down deep inside the city and while Iraqi forces are still advancing steadily, the battle is expected to get tougher the farther they venture toward the centre. Iraqi helicopters and air strikes by the US-led coalition have played a key role in the latest progress but the density of the civilian population inside the city will limit air support.