By Isabel Coles
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi special forces battled Islamic State militants in districts near the Tigris river in Mosul on Monday as they sought to bring more of the east of the city back under government control.
The latest clashes occurred in the neighboring Shurta and Andalus districts. At least three Islamic State suicide car bombs targeted Iraqi forces in Andalus. There was no immediate word on any casualties. In an online post, Islamic State said it had carried out a “martyrdom operation” in the area.
Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) said the militants, who seized Mosul in 2014 as they swept across much of northern Iraq, only to since lose much of that terrain to government counter-offensives, were fighting back hard.
“We’ve begun breaching (Shurta) but there was an attack a few moments ago. By the end of the day we’ll make some progress,” CTS spokesman Sabah al-Numan said.
Shurta and Andalus are situated close to the eastern bank of the Tigris, separated only by some woodland, and within sight of the city’s northernmost bridge across the river.
Iraqi forces, which have reached three of the five bridges, say they will soon fully control the eastern bank. They have already taken areas of the river bank further south.
Once the east bank is recaptured, they can begin attacks on western Mosul, which the Sunni Muslim extremist insurgents still hold.
Iraqi forces have seized most of the east in a 3-month-old U.S.-backed campaign to oust the militants from Iraq’s second largest city, Islamic State’s last major Iraqi stronghold. The Tigris bisects Mosul from north to south.
A Reuters cameraman in a southern district along the Tigris said snipers from elite interior ministry combat units were firing across the river at Islamic State positions.
Fighting has intensified since the turn of the year as Iraqi forces have renewed an offensive against the ultra-hardline militants. Troops had got bogged down in late November and December after entering Mosul as IS fighters fought back with car bombs and snipers, and concealed themselves among a civilian population of up to 1.5 million.
MORE PEOPLE MADE HOMELESS
The United Nations said a further 32,000 Mosul residents had fled the city in just over two weeks, bringing the total number of people made homeless in the campaign to retake Mosul to 161,000.
A resident in western Mosul, reached by phone, said Islamic State combatants had stopped people living in the west from crossing the river to the east.
Another resident said a number of IS militants, including senior leaders in western Mosul, had left the city in the direction of Tal Afar, a town toward the Syrian border.
Shi’ite Muslim militias have advanced on IS-held Tal Afar, and linked up with Kurdish fighters nearby in November.
The Mosul offensive, supported by U.S. coalition air power, involves 100,000-strong combined forces of Iraqi troops, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shi’ite militias.
As IS has lost territory in its Mosul bastion, it has carried out bombing attacks in Baghdad and raids on police and army outposts elsewhere in the country. Since the turn of the year, attacks in Baghdad have killed dozens of people.
New York-based Human Rights watch said on Monday that Islamic State’s bombings, which have targeted crowded markets, amounted to “crimes against humanity”.
“(IS) has routinely carried out devastating attacks that appear designed to inflict maximum death and suffering on ordinary Iraqis,” HRW said in a statement. It urged the Iraqi government to greater assist victims of militant attacks.
(Reporting by Isabel Coles in Mosul, Saif Hameed and John Davison in Baghdad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)