(Reuters) Iraqi army units advanced from southeast Mosul towards a bridge across the Tigris in the city center on Tuesday, in an attack that could give fresh impetus to the hard fought, seven-week battle for ISIS northern Iraq stronghold.
Campaign commander Lieutenant General Abdul Ameer Rasheed Yarallah was quoted by Iraqi television as saying troops had entered Salam Hospital, less than a mile (1.5 km) from the Tigris river running through the center of Mosul.
If confirmed, that would mark a significant advance by the army’s Ninth Armoured Division, which had been tied up for more than a month in deadly, close-quarter combat with ISIS fighters on the southeast edges of the city.
A colonel in the armored division said Tuesday’s assault, launched at 6 a.m., aimed to push towards the river and ultimately reach Mosul’s Fourth Bridge, the southernmost of the five bridges spanning the Tigris which splits the city in two.
The bridge, like three others, has been hit by U.S.-led air strikes to prevent ISIS sending reinforcements and suicide car bombs across the city to the eastern front, where counter-terrorism troops have spearheaded the army campaign.
The last and oldest bridge, built of iron in the 1930s, was targeted on Monday night, two residents said. The structure was not destroyed, but the air strikes made two large craters in the approach roads on both sides.
Militants immediately began to fill the craters, the residents told Reuters by telephone.
“I saw Daesh using bulldozers to fill the craters with sand and by midday vehicles managed to cross the bridge normally. I drove my car to the other side of the bridge and saw also Daesh vehicles crossing,” said a taxi driver.
Mosul is by far the largest city under ISIS control and defeating its fighters there would roll back the self-styled caliphate it declared in Iraq and Syria 2014 after seizing large parts of both countries.
Some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, security forces, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and mainly Shi’ite paramilitary forces are participating in the overall Mosul campaign that began on Oct. 17, with air and ground support from a U.S.-led coalition.
Although it has made advances inside eastern Mosul, the army says it is battling the toughest urban warfare imaginable – facing hundreds of suicide car bomb attacks, mortar barrages, sniper fire and ambushes launched from a network of tunnels.
Its advance has also been slowed by the presence of more than 1 million residents in the city