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Iraqi forces take strategic bridge as battle for Mosul 'nears end'

Iraqi government forces have taken control of the Iron Bridge linking the eastern sector of Mosul with the IS-held Old City. The battle to drive IS from its last urban stronghold in Iraq may be reaching its final stages.

Federal police and Interior Ministry Rapid Response units seized the bridge early on Wednesday, a police statement said, quoting a commander.

Iraqi forces now hold three of the five bridges that span the Tigris in Mosul. All of them have been damaged by the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) militants as well as US-led air strikes.

Heavy fighting was also reported around Mosul Museum by journalists and combatants. An IS suicide car bomb exploded near the museum.

Staff Brigadier Falah al-Obeidi of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) told the news agency Reuters that his troops had also taken control of the Dor al-Sikak and the al-Nafut areas, sites of IS' main weapons stores just west of the Old City.

A map showing the city's several bridges.

A map showing the city's several bridges.

"After this we will start an operation to seal off the area near the bridge to clear it from Daesh fighters," said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry's Rapid Response units, one of the elite forces spearheading the offensive, using an Arab acronym for the group.

"We will be heading towards the old market in Bab al-Tob and advance deeper to reach the location of Mosul's Grand Mosque."

Key target

The Grand Mosque in Mosul's Old City carries great significance.

Losing the city would be a huge blow to IS as it has served as the group's de facto capital since its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself - from the Grand Mosque - head of a caliphate covering Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014. The decisive stage in the battle for Mosul started on October 17 last year.

Government forcesreportedly killed the military commander of the Old City, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Ansary, during operations to clear Bab al-Tob district on Tuesday.

However, they will likely make slow headway in the streets and narrow alleyways of the Old City as IS has booby-trapped houses, and government forces will also be fighting amongst civilians, ruling out extensive use of air and artillery support.

Residents have streamed out of western neighbourhoods recaptured by the government, many desperately hungry and traumatised by living under IS' hardline rule.

An Iraqi special forces soldier carries a woman injured during a battle between Iraqi forces and IS fighters in Mosul.

An Iraqi special forces soldier carries a woman injured during a battle between Iraqi forces and IS fighters in Mosul.

100,000 displaced

Nearly 100,000 people have been displaced by the battle to retake west Mosul from IS.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Wednesday that Iraqi forces launched a major operation last month to retake west Mosul, where 750,000 people were estimated to reside and of whom 97,374 have since fled.

The Ministry of Immigration and Displacement said that in recent days almost 13,000 displaced people from western Mosul had been given assistance and temporary accommodation each day.

Watch video 00:58

So-called Islamic State launches chemical weapons against Mosul civilians

jbh/rt (AFP, Reuters)

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