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In Iraq National forces clear east Mosul ahead of push for west bank

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said around the new year that ridding the country of IS, could take three more months.

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Iraqi Staff General Talib al-Sheghati (C) speaks during a press conference in the town of Bartalla, east of Mosul, on January 18, 2017 play

Iraqi Staff General Talib al-Sheghati (C) speaks during a press conference in the town of Bartalla, east of Mosul, on January 18, 2017

(AFP)

Iraqi forces battled the last holdout jihadists in east Mosul Thursday after commanders declared victory there and set their sights on the city's west, where more tough fighting awaits.

The announcement that the left bank of the Tigris River that divides Mosul had been retaken was a key milestone in an offensive that began three months ago but could yet last several more.

Staff General Talib al-Sheghati, who heads the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) spearheading the fighting in Mosul, declared the left bank "liberated" at a big press conference on Wednesday.

Iraqi forces were still fighting there on Thursday, flushing out fighters from the Islamic State group in two key northern locations by the river: a large hotel and a presidential compound.

CTS moved in on Thursday morning "so there would not be... pressure on the army," which is charge of that sector, Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, a top commander in the CTS, told AFP.

Members of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) celebrate in their military base in the town of Bartalla on January 18, 2017 after a top Iraqi commander announced that have they fully retaken east Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group play

Members of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) celebrate in their military base in the town of Bartalla on January 18, 2017 after a top Iraqi commander announced that have they fully retaken east Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group

(AFP)

The Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against IS also said that the army on Thursday broke into the town of Talkif, which lies just north of Mosul and has been besieged by Iraqi forces for weeks.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said around the new year that ridding the country of IS, which seized around a third of Iraq in 2014, could take three more months.

He had initially promised to do so by the end of 2016 and many observers have argued his new timetable was still optimistic.

Before Iraq launched its massive offensive against IS-held Mosul on October 17, the west bank had always been thought to be where federal forces would meet the toughest resistance.

Denser terrain

But elite troops struggled in the east too and only broke the back of the jihadists there in recent days, after stepped up coordination and increased aerial and advisory support from the US-led coalition.

Once they have fully secured the east coast, Iraqi forces will need to tackle the west bank of the river, which is a little smaller but more densely populated.

Patrick Martin, Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said that the worst may be yet to come.

Members of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service patrol in front of the Nabi Yunus shrine in eastern Mosul on January 18, 2017 play

Members of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service patrol in front of the Nabi Yunus shrine in eastern Mosul on January 18, 2017

(AFP)

"The coalition and the ISF (Iraqi security forces) should plan for western Mosul to be the hardest fight in Mosul," he said.

"It is denser urban terrain, with older neighbourhoods and narrower streets that will make clearing operations challenging," Martin said.

"IS and Sunni insurgent groups also have had historical support zones in western Mosul," he added, warning that federal forces advancing in the streets could encounter more hostile residents than they have on the eastern side.

According to an estimate by the United Nations, around 750,000 people still live on Mosul's west bank, which includes the old city and key landmarks such as the mosque where IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his "caliphate" in June 2014.

Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman of the US-led coalition that has dropped close to 10,000 munitions on IS targets in the Mosul area since the operation began, said the battle would be tough but argued the jihadists had also been severely weakened since October.

Fears for civilians

"They lost a lot of fighters, a lot of resources, a lot of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and a lot of weapons during the first half of this battle," he said.

"The city is for all intents and purposes surrounded so they won't be able to resupply or reinforce whatever remains," he explained.

Unlike most of the previous major battles to retake Iraqi cities from IS, the current offensive did not empty Mosul of its population.

The UN and other relief organisations had planned for an unprecedented exodus of up to a million people but there are currently only around 150,000 civilians displaced as a result of the Mosul offensive.

The presence of so many residents in west Mosul as IS fights to the death for its last major bastion in Iraq was also a concern however.

Members of the Iraqi special forces Counter Terrorism Service look for Islamic State (IS) group fighters in Mosul's al-Jazair neighbourhood on January 17, 2017 play

Members of the Iraqi special forces Counter Terrorism Service look for Islamic State (IS) group fighters in Mosul's al-Jazair neighbourhood on January 17, 2017

(AFP)

"Many families have escaped the horrors of Mosul, but at least 300,000 children remain trapped in the west of the city and now face the prospect of a brutal siege," Save the Children's Misty Buswell said.

"Children have already paid a heavy price during the battles for the east, with civilians so far making up nearly half of all casualties in the conflict," she said.

"In the narrow and densely populated streets of the west, in Mosul's old city, children and their families run an even greater risk of being caught in the crossfire or being hit by bombs."

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