(Reuters) Most Islamic State (IS) commanders in Mosul have been killed in battles with Iraqi government forces that raged over the past three months in the eastern side of the city, an Iraqi general said on Thursday.
The fight to take the western side of Mosul, which remains under the jihadists’ control, should not be more difficult than the one on the eastern side, Lieutenant-General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi told Reuters before embarking on a tour of areas newly retaken.
Assadi climbed during his visit to the upper floor of a huge unfinished mosque and gazed out at the western side of the northern Iraqi city, which is divided into two halves by the Tigris river.
His elite Counter-Terrorism Service announced on Wednesday that almost all of the city’s eastern half has been brought under government control.
“God willing, there will be a meeting in the next few days attended by all the commanders concerned with liberation operations,” he said, replying to a question on when he expects a planned thrust into the western side of Mosul to begin.
“It will not be harder than what we have seen. The majority of (IS) commanders have been killed in the eastern side.” He did not give further details.
Since late 2015, government forces backed by U.S.-led coalition air power have wrested back large amounts of northern and western territory overrun by IS in a shock 2014 offensive.
On Thursday, regular Iraqi army troops captured the Nineveh Oberoy hotel, the so-called “palaces” area on the eastern bank of the Tigris, and Tel Kef, a small town just to the north according to military statements in Baghdad.
The army is still battling militants in al-Arabi, the last district which remains under their control east of the river, said one of the statements.
“God willing, there will be an announcement in the next few days that all the eastern bank is under control,” Assadi said.
A Reuters correspondent saw army troops deploying in an area by the river as mortar and gun fire rang out further north.
On one of the streets newly recaptured from Islamic State, men were reassembling breeze blocks into a wall that was blown up by a suicide car bomb several days ago.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said late on Tuesday that Islamic State had been severely weakened in the Mosul campaign, and the military had begun “moving” against it in the western half of Iraq’s second largest city. He did not elaborate.
If the U.S.-backed campaign is successful it will likely spell the end of the Iraqi side of the self-styled caliphate declared by the ultra-hardline Islamic State in 2014, which also extends well into neighboring Syria.
Military advances in the last two weeks have been driven in part by improved tactics and coordination between different security forces like the Counter Terrorism Service, the regular army and the police, U.S. and Iraqi military officials say.
Progress had slowed towards the end of last year as the military restrained some operations to avoid hitting civilians.
Several thousand civilians have been killed or wounded in the Mosul fighting since October.