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Iraqi forces eye tougher fight in Mosul’s west

Progress of Iraqi forces sped up this month as they closed in on the river that roughly divides Mosul into eastern and western halves

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A crowd of Iraqi officers looked out at the Tigris River Friday from a balcony of Mosul's Nineveh International hotel. Just over three months ago, the men were some 45 kilometers (28 miles) away in a cluster of desert villages on the edge of Nineveh plain.

"Our message to the rest of Mosul's residents is that victory is near," said Lt. Gen. Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi, on a celebratory tour after the city's east was declared largely liberated on Wednesday.

The progress of Iraqi forces, halting at first, sped up this month as they closed in on the river that roughly divides Mosul into eastern and western halves. But that momentum is unlikely to be sustained and the city's western half is poised to be a much tougher fight for the already fatigued forces.

Mosul's west is more densely populated and home to the city's oldest neighborhoods. The United Nations estimates some 750,000 people are still in the city's west, many of them residents of outlying villages that IS fighters led on forced marches up the Tigris River valley as they lost ground there.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, the commander of coalition ground forces, credited the swift progress with greater coordination between Iraq's disparate security forces that allowed Iraqi ground troops to push back IS by launching coordinated attacks.

Mosul civilians Reuters
Mosul civilians Reuters

"They're attacking the enemy from multiple directions and the enemy cannot react," he said.

However, Iraqi ground forces largely credit their victories to thinning IS defenses and nighttime raids across front lines aimed at taking out key local militant leadership. Iraq's special forces first began carrying out such raids in Fallujah with close coalition support. In Mosul, as progress stalled, coalition forces moved deeper into the city in part to aid in the nighttime operations, according to an Iraqi officer who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief the press.

Iraqi troops have also experienced similarly high casualty rates; Irbil hospital officials and Iraqi medics working inside Mosul estimate that more than 1,600 Iraqi troops have been injured or killed during the Mosul operation. The number excludes Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga who participated in the initial stages of the fight.

Special forces private Sahil Najim, a 37 year-old from Wasit province in southern Iraq, said in his company alone, more than 30 men have been killed in the last three months.

"This is our duty," Najim said, "so of course it is worth it. But we still feel sorrow, how could you not?"