Iraqi troops have entered Mosul from the north for the first time, part of a new phase in the battle for the city that also saw elite forces bridge a river under cover of darkness in an unprecedented night raid.
The operations were part of a major new push launched last week to seize ground in the city, after progress in the nearly three-month-old operation had stalled for weeks because of a need to slow the advance to protect civilians.
Troops would soon “cut the head of the snake” and drive the ultra-hardline group from its largest urban stronghold, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said on Friday.
The battle for Mosul is the biggest ground operation in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. A victory by the 100,000-strong US-backed pro-government force would probably spell the end for Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate that has ruled over millions of people in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
But the militants, who are thought to number several thousand in Mosul, continue to put up fierce resistance using suicide car bombs and snipers.
They carried out more attacks against security forces some 200km south of Mosul on Friday, killing at least four soldiers, and are expected to pose a guerrilla threat to Iraq and Syria, and to plot attacks on the West, even if their caliphate falls.
A spokesman for Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), which has taken the lead in much of the assault on the city, said troops had taken territory in an overnight raid across a Tigris River tributary in east Mosul.
“We used special equipment and had the element of surprise – the enemy did not expect us to mount a night offensive because all previous offensives were during the day,” Sabah al-Numan told Reuters.
Iraqi army units later breached the city from the north for the first time since the offensive began on October 17, entering the residential al-Hadba apartments complex, officers at a nearby command post told Reuters. It was not immediately clear how much of the area they controlled amid resistance from Islamic State.
Iraqi forces have so far recaptured more than half of eastern Mosul, but they have yet to cross the Tigris to face insurgents who are still firmly in control of the western half of the city.
More than 100,000 civilians have fled, but 1.5 million people have stayed behind in the city, which commanders say forced the government troops to slow their advance.
In the latest phase of the operation, US forces deploying more extensively in support of the Iraqi army, federal police and CTS can now be seen very close to the front lines.
US forces located south of Mosul fired HIMARS vehicle-mounted rockets at Islamic State targets in a northern district on Friday.
“The fight against terrorism is in its final round. Our forces … will cut off the head of the snake and clear all of Mosul soon, with God’s help,” Abadi said.
A series of bomb attacks in Baghdad in recent days, some claimed by Islamic State, have killed scores of people.