MOSUL- Iraqi government forces battling ISIS for Mosul took control of a main bridge over the Tigris river on Wednesday and advanced towards the mosque where the group’s leader declared a caliphate in 2014, federal police said.
The seizure of the Iron Bridge, linking eastern Mosul with the militant-held Old City on the west side, means the government holds three of the five bridges over the Tigris and bolsters Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s assertion that the battle is reaching its final stages.
The bridge, which was damaged in fighting late last year, was captured by federal police and Interior Ministry Rapid Response units, a police statement said.
The gains were made in heavy fighting in which troops fought street-by-street against an enemy using suicide car bombs, mortar and sniper fire, and grenade-dropping drones to defend what was once their main stronghold.
“Our troops are making a steady advance … and we are now less than 800 meters from the mosque,” a federal police spokesman said.
Losing the city would be a huge blow to ISIS as it has served as the group’s de facto capital since its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself head of a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria from the Nuri Mosque in July 2014.
The capture of the mosque would thus be a huge symbolic victory as well as a concrete gain. But many hard days of fighting could still lie ahead as government forces try to make headway in the streets and narrow alleyways of the Old City.
ISIS militants have booby-trapped houses, and government forces will also be fighting amongst civilians, ruling out the extensive use of air and artillery support.
Heavy fighting was also reported on Wednesday around the Mosul museum by journalists and combatants. An ISIS suicide car bomb exploded near the museum. Helicopters strafed the ground with machinegun fire and missiles.