U.S.-backed Iraqi forces battling to retake western Mosul from Islamic State (IS) militants have captured a neighborhood and a key bridge on the Tigris River, a move that could allow the opening of supply lines with the government-controlled east bank.
Military officials say it is crucial to establish a link between the east and west banks of the Tigris to support the battle to defeat IS in western Mosul, a drive launched on February 19.
The Iraqi military said in a statement on February 27 that government forces captured Mosul's southernmost bridge, one of five damaged and unusable bridges spanning the Tigris.
Iraqi military officials said they are trying to construct a floating bridge across the river.
"We had an important operation this morning to move towards the bridge," Colonel Falah al-Wabdan of the Iraqi Rapid Response forces told AFP.
He added the area was heavily mined and that his forces had killed 44 militants on February 26 alone.
Earlier on February 27, government forces captured the Tayyaran neighborhood, located close to the bridge.
Backed by U.S. air strikes, and bolstered by Shi’ite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Iraqi forces launched their initial assault to force IS out of their stronghold city in October.
After a bloodier-than-expected battle, Iraqi troops retook eastern Mosul in January.
But experts say western Mosul, with its narrow streets and some 750,000 civilian residents, would be much tougher to capture against an estimated 2,000 IS fighters.
Iraqi military officials report steady gains so far, but they have come in the face of rising casualties.
The Associated Press on February 26 cited medical officials at front-line clinics as saying at least 30 security forces and more than 200 civilians have been killed or wounded in the past three days.
Residents report bodies strewn on the streets in some neighborhoods.
The Iraqi military has not released casualty figures from the assault.
Even as troops battle to liberate western Mosul, Iraqi officials and world historians have been meeting in Paris to coordinate plans to restore the city’s cultural treasures, many of which have been bulldozed or bombed by IS militants.
Historians are anxiously awaiting the fate of Mosul’s main museum, the second-largest in Iraq in an area that has been inhabited for an estimated 4,400 years.
The museum was looted during the 2003 Iraq war but was on the verge of reopening in 2014 when IS took over, AFP reports.
IS militants seized large portions of northern Iraq and Syria in an offensive in 2014.
The group has been accused of numerous atrocities and has claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere.
Islamic State declared Mosul to be the capital of their so-called caliphate after capturing the city in 2014.
With reporting by AP, AFP and Reuters