Iraqi forces have recaptured a hospital and other medical facilities in west Mosul, further isolating ISIS group holdouts in the Old City, officers said.
The country’s security forces are in the final stages of the gruelling battle to retake second city Mosul, which they launched more than eight months ago.
Interior ministry forces recaptured the Ibn Sina Teaching Hospital along with other medical facilities including a blood bank and a clinic, Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir Yarallah said in a statement on Saturday.
Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, the commander of the country’s federal police, said the area where the hospital is located, al-Shifaa, had been completely retaken, limiting ISIS’ presence in Mosul to the Old City.
“Our forces are advancing from three sides and are pursuing the terrorist groups in the few remaining areas of the Old City,” Jawdat said in a statement.
US troops in Mosul fight
The day after Iraq's prime minister declared an end to ISIS’s caliphate, US Army Col. Pat Work and a small team of about a dozen soldiers drove through western Mosul in two unmarked armored vehicles to warn Iraqi forces of a pressing threat: friendly fire.
The American colonel had a series of urgent face-to-face meetings with generals from the Iraqi Army, the federal police and the Iraqi special forces ahead of a major offensive Saturday morning to drive out the remaining ISIS positions in Mosul.
American troops are taking on an increasingly prominent role in the fight. Once largely restricted to working within highly fortified Iraqi bases, US commanders now travel in and around Mosul with small teams of soldiers, sharing intelligence and advising plans of attack, revealing how the US role in Iraq has steadily deepened throughout the operation to retake the country's second largest city.
The gains in the Old City bringing Iraqi troops closer to victory against ISIS in Mosul have also meant the three branches of the country's security forces are now fighting in closer quarters than ever before.
Weaving in and out of civilian traffic along the city's main thoroughfares, thick plumes of black smoke from airstrikes and artillery were just visible on the horizon from Work's convoy.
He explained that the new battle space and lingering communication shortcomings mean Iraqi ground troops are at increased risk of being hit by non-precision fire like mortars and artillery launched by their partner Iraqi forces.
"We're helping (Iraqi forces) see across the boundaries between their different units... just helping them understand where they are and how rapidly things might be changing." said Work.
Throughout the course of the day Work shuttled between bases, meeting with Iraqi commanders deep inside Mosul. While the US-led coalition has closely backed Iraqi forces with airstrikes in a number of fights against ISIS, the Mosul operation is the first time US troops have openly partnered with Iraqi forces on the ground within just a few kilometers (miles) frontline fighting.
"It's a very violent close fight," said Work, the commander of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade Combat Team who deployed to Iraq in January. "When the bullets aren't enough the (Iraqi) commanders want to turn to high explosives which might be mortars or artillery... so understanding where the other guy is all the time is kinda rule number one, so the lethal effect is directed at the target and not accidentally at another player that's on your team."
The various forces that make up Iraq's military have long struggled with coordination. While the Mosul operation is overseen by a joint operations command and the prime minister, forces on the ground maintain independent command structures, standards and cultures.
The Mosul fight is the first time all three forces have had to cooperate in an urban environment and throughout the operation the army, federal police and special forces have faced deadly setbacks when they acted independently, allowing ISIS fighters to concentrate their defenses on a single front.
One of Work's stops was at a modest house in a residential west Mosul neighborhood. About a dozen US troops and Iraqi soldiers were hunched over computers identifying ISIS targets just a few hundred meters away ahead of the next day's operation. The presence of US forces at the small patrol base deep inside Mosul is a level of support that had not been authorized when the Mosul fight first began.
Under the administration of US President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis moved US combat advisers closer to the fight by authorizing US troops to partner with Iraqi forces at the battalion level.
The US-led coalition's fight against ISIS in Iraq has slowly expanded over the past three years from a campaign of airstrikes carried out by coalition forces who largely stayed within heavily fortified bases to an operation with some 6,000 American troops on the ground, many operating close to frontline fighting. The evolution suggests that despite a large training program designed to generate enough soldiers to retake Mosul, Coalition officials assessed Iraqi forces lacked the tactical skills to conduct the operation without close support.
Between meetings, as Work's vehicle rolled through a traffic circle in western Mosul, he said being on the ground beside his Iraqi counterparts is essential.
"For any commander there is no substitute for seeing it with your own eyes... for talking to the stake holders who are in it making the decisions every day," he said. "ISIS has no boundaries, so our adviser network can't have any boundaries. And so part of it is getting out there daily to see it."
Work's one-on-one meetings inside Mosul come with a huge operational footprint. During his visit Friday a team of dozens of US soldiers - most young men on their first deployment - provided him security and handled logistics. At each patrol base inside Mosul where US troops work with Iraqi forces there can be dozens to over a hundred soldiers deployed to protect a team of just 10 advisers.
With the vast majority of Mosul retaken from ISIS, soldiers trained by the coalition to fight in combat are now transitioning to act as hold forces to help provide security. Even after the last pockets of the city are retaken, Work said he doesn't expect that will necessarily mean an end to the US role in Mosul.
"Mosul is going to be a challenge, ISIS is going to continue to challenge the hold," he said.
He added that US troops would continue to facilitate coordination and provide advice to security forces in Mosul just as they did during the offensive.
"We will continue to help Iraqi commanders recognize that this is what you fought for."
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