March 6, 2017 / 6:08 PM / 5 months ago

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces capture Mosul bridge, close in on state buildings

MOSUL, Iraq/BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S.-backed Iraqi forces captured the second of Mosul's five bridges on Monday, giving a boost to their onslaught on Islamic State's remaining stronghold in the western part of the city.

All of Mosul's five bridges have been destroyed but the capture of the remaining parts on the West bank of the Tigris facilitates the movement of forces progressing up the river that cuts Mosul in two.

The bridge seized, al-Hurriya, is the second after one located further south. Its capture shields the back of the forces advancing towards a nearby complex of government buildings.

"We control the western end of the bridge," said a media officer with Rapid Response, the elite unit of the Interior Ministry leading the charge towards the complex.

Rapid Response and Federal Police units on Monday took the court of justice and Nineveh police directorate buildings, neither of which were used by Islamic State.

"In the coming hours our forces will raise the Iraqi flag over the governorate building," Federal Police Brigadier General Shaalan Ali Saleh told Reuters.

Recapturing the area would help Iraqi forces attack the militants in the old city and mark a symbolic step towards restoring state authority over Mosul, even though the buildings are destroyed and not being used by Islamic State.

The battle for Mosul, which started on Oct. 17, will enter a more complicated phase in the densely populated old city where, the Iraqi military believes, several thousand militants are among the remaining civilian population, which aid agencies estimated to number 750,000 civilians at the start of the latest offensive.

Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts west of the Tigris on Feb. 19.

Smoke rises from a car bomb that exploded during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, March 6, 2017.Thaier Al-Sudani

The militants have barricaded streets with civilian vehicles and rigged them with explosives to hinder the advance of Iraqi forces who were also met with sniper, machinegun and mortar fire, as well as explosives dropped from drones.

"Deep Relief"

Defeating Islamic State in Mosul would crush the Iraqi wing of the caliphate declared by the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2014, from Mosul's grand Nuri mosque in the old city centre which is still under his followers' control.

A still image taken from video shows a member of Islamic State militants firing a rocket launcher against Iraqi security forces on the outskirts of south-west Mosul, Iraq , March 6, 2017. Amaq News Agency/via Reuters TV.

But they are also facing setbacks in Syria where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces cut the last main road out of its capital there, Raqqa on Monday. Islamic State is also fighting off the Russian-backed Syrian army as well as and Turkey and allied Syrian rebels.

Lined up against the militants in Mosul is a 100,000-strong force of Iraqi troops, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iranian-trained Shi'ite Muslim paramilitary groups.

More than 40,000 people fled their homes in the past week, bringing the total number of displaced since the start of the offensive to nearly 210,000, according to the United Nations.

Agencies say camps to accommodate them are nearly full even though the United Nations said last month that more than 400,000 people still in western Mosul could be displaced.

The Iraqi foreign ministry meanwhile expressed "deep relief" at U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to remove Iraq from a list of countries targeted in a U.S. travel ban.

"The decision is an important step in the right direction, it consolidates the strategic alliance between Baghdad and Washington in many fields, and at their forefront war on terrorism," the ministry said in a statement.

Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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