Iraq’s military says it has retaken the eastern side of Mosul from the Islamic State group, a critical milestone in its battle to drive the terror organization from the country’s second-largest city.
Lt.-Gen. Talib Shaghati, head of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service, told journalists Wednesday that his forces had seized control of the eastern bank of the Tigris River, which divides the ancient city from north to south, Reuters reported.
“Today we celebrate… the liberation of the eastern bank in Mosul,” Shaghati said.
Regular army soldiers are still fighting pockets of ISIS militants holed up in the northeast of the city, according to a military statement.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi hailed the progress, vowing in a statement to continue efforts to liberate the west of the city, which remains fully under ISIS control.
Once home to more than 2 million people, Mosul has been one of biggest jewels in the terror group’s crown, both symbolically and strategically. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of his so-called “caliphate” in the city’s Great Mosque in June 2014.
The battle for Mosul, the largest military operation in the country since the U.S. invasion of 2003, got off to a fast start on Oct. 16, when a huge coalition of Iraqi security forces, Kurdish peshmerga, Shia militia, and Sunni tribal fighters began its advance.
With upwards of 100,000 troops at their disposal – dramatically outnumbering the few thousand ISIS militants believed to be holed up in the city – along with air and logistical support and intelligence from the U.S. and other international partners, Iraqi forces saw immediate and large-scale gains in the first weeks of the offensive. But progress soon slowed as forces grew nearer to the city’s center and ran up against a well-prepared and entrenched ISIS opposition.
The ISIS militants who seized Mosul in June 2014 had plenty of time to prepare for the long-promised assault, building an extensive network of tunnels and carefully planted booby traps throughout the city that were initially successful in slowing the advance of government forces.
Mike Knights, Iraq researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said ISIS had initially put up a “hell of a fight” in defending the east, and Iraqi forces had to rely more on their international partners than they’d expected to.
He said the battle for east Mosul had not proved as dire a humanitarian catastrophe as aid agencies had originally feared, nor as swift a victory as the coalition hoped.
“We haven’t seen extremely widespread destruction, we’ve not seen as many displaced people as the aid agencies were fearing,” he said. “On the other side, the coalition hoped Mosul could pop quickly – we’re somewhere in the middle.”
The U.N.’s refugee agency said Tuesday that more than 160,000 people have been displaced from Mosul and surrounding villages since the start of the offensive, with the numbers of displaced rising steeply with the intensification of the assault in recent weeks. Some of the displaced families have begun returning to liberated areas in the wake of the government advance.
Knights said he expected the west of the city to be liberated by the end of April or May, although it depended on how well the lessons learned in the three months of fighting to date were applied, and how much fight the terror group had left.
“What we don’t know is what percentage of their strength did they expend to defend east Mosul,” he said. He expects the assault on the west of the city to involve Iraqi forces redeploying and pressing in from the outskirts of the city as they had done in the east, rather than crossing the river that bisects the city.
The loss of Mosul, the largest city still under ISIS control, would be a major blow for the terror group and could spell the end of its dominant territorial control in Iraq, Knights said. The group controls large stretches of neighboring Syria, including the capital of its so-called caliphate, Raqqa.
Yet even when Mosul is retaken in its entirety, ISIS will continue to wreak havoc in Iraq as an insurgent group, Knights said, maintaining a presence in ungoverned stretches of the country and launching terror attacks on major government-held cities.
“We can already see into the future in other parts of Iraq.”