A member of Iraqi rapid response forces fires a rocket launcher during a battle with Islamic State militants in the district of Yarimja in southern Mosul, Iraq, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY(reuters_tickers)
By Isabel Coles
BARTELLA, Iraq (Reuters) - Elite Iraqi forces have ousted Islamic State insurgents from all districts of eastern Mosul they were tasked with recapturing, their commanding officer said on Wednesday, bringing almost all of the city's eastern half back under government control.
Lieutenant-General Talib Shaghati said the Counter Terrorism Services (CTS), who have spearheaded the three-month-old offensive against Islamic State (IS) in the northern Iraqi city, had taken the eastern bank of the Tigris river.
Regular army troops were still fighting the ultra-hardline militants in northeast Mosul, however, according to a military statement. A few parts of the bank further north had yet to be fully taken.
"Today we celebrate ... the liberation of the eastern bank in Mosul," Shaghati told reporters in the nearby town of Bartella.
He said that recapturing Mosul's western half, which the jihadists still fully control, would be an easier task. Officers have previously said that the more densely populated west bank of the Tigris could pose additional military challenges.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said victory was near.
"The promise of final liberation and total victory in Mosul has come close to being realised," he said in a statement.
"Work is under way now to liberate what remains of the forests and palaces (along the eastern bank) and few areas" where IS was still holed up.
Bridges across the Tigris, which bisects Mosul from north to south, have been hit by U.S.-led warplanes to prevent IS reinforcements joining the fighting in eastern neighbourhoods, and more recently by the militants trying to block a future westward advance by the military.
If the U.S.-backed campaign is successful it would probably spell the end of the Iraqi side of the jihadist group's self-styled caliphate, which also extends well into neighbouring Syria, that it declared during a lightning offensive in 2014.
The Iraqi army, special forces and elite police units have operated in tandem to capture different areas of eastern Mosul. The army is mostly deployed in the north, the CTS in the east, and the federal police in the south.
Army units advanced into the northeastern neighbourhoods of Qadiya 2 and al-Arabi, the military statement said.
Abadi said late on Tuesday that IS had been severely weakened in the Mosul campaign, and that the military had begun "moving" against it in western Mosul, without elaborating.
Residents reached by phone said air strikes against Islamic State deep inside western Mosul had increased in recent days.
More than a dozen missile strikes in the Yarmouk district targeted weapons depots and workshops the militants used to make explosives, and also destroyed two car bombs stored there, according to one resident.
Some raids had killed or wounded civilians, including in the Mosul al-Jadida neighbourhood and an industrial zone, residents said.
Reuters could not independently verify the witness accounts.
(Reporting by Isabel Coles in Bartella, John Davison and Saif Hameed in Baghdad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)