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Eastern side of Mosul recaptured from Islamic State, Iraqi prime minister says

Iraqi Army soldiers deploy after defeating Islamic State militants in the eastern side of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. (Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
Iraqi Army soldiers deploy after defeating Islamic State militants in the eastern side of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. (Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
By Mustafa Salim and Loveday Morris Washington Post

BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces have recaptured the entire eastern side of Mosul, the Iraqi prime minister said Tuesday, marking a midpoint in a grueling battle for the Islamic State-held city.

The announcement comes three months after Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, launched an offensive for the city, a fight that has stretched on longer than officials first predicted. The operation to retake the northern city from the Islamic State is the largest and most complex the country has seen since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Army and police forces, militia fighters, Kurdish peshmerga soldiers and elite counterterrorism troops are all participating in the effort.

The forces initially were met with hundreds of car bombs, waylaying their progress and inflicting heavy casualties. The presence of civilians also slowed their efforts, and it soon became clear that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s promise to recapture the city by the end of 2016 was impossible to fulfill.

In recent weeks, however, with the city’s bridges all bombed, militants on the eastern side of the Tigris River have been besieged and unable to resupply.

“We have seen a major collapse in the ranks of the enemy,” Abadi said in a televised news conference, adding that many of the militants had tried to flee in recent days.

Abadi urged Iraqi forces to “move quickly” to recapture the western part of the city. But the Islamic State has had a year and a half to build up there, and Iraqi forces are expected to face another fierce battle.

Mosul’s western side is more densely packed with civilians – some 750,000 according to Iraqi military estimates – and Iraqi forces have been trying to keep people in their homes to avoid a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations on Tuesday warned that civilians on the western side were at “extreme risk.”

“We hope that everything is done to protect the hundreds of thousands of people who are across the river in the west,” Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement. “We fear for their lives. They can be killed by booby-traps and in crossfire and could be used as human shields.”

Reports of soaring food prices and intermittent water and electricity supplies were “distressing,” Grande said.

The fight for the western side will be the Islamic State’s last stand in the city and one of great symbolic importance for the group. It was the capture of Mosul by the militants in 2014 that prompted the Islamic State to declare its caliphate. It was in a sermon in the city’s Great Mosque that the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, urged Muslims around the world to follow him.

“The west is going to be challenging just like the east was,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, head of ground forces for the U.S.-led coalition, said in an interview earlier this month. “We have an enemy that has had over two years to prepare.”

Older parts of Mosul, where streets are narrower, make the terrain more complicated than in the east, he noted. “They’ve got to clear thousands of kilometers of streets, hundreds of thousands of rooms in excess of 100,000 buildings, and they’ve got to do that while discriminating between the enemy and the civilians,” he said of the fight ahead for Iraqi forces.

Some Iraqi commanders hope the militants have already expended much of their firepower trying to hold on to the east. “They used all their leaders and suicide bombers on the eastern side,” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations command.

Much of the fighting inside the city limits has been led by Iraq’s elite counterterrorism troops, who announced that they had finished clearing their sector last week. Since then the army has been battling to retake a few remaining neighborhoods in the city’s northeast. Those neighborhoods were cleared of booby traps and explosives on Tuesday, according to Rasoul.

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