| MOSUL, Iraq/BAGHDAD
MOSUL, Iraq/BAGHDAD Iraqi special forces battling Islamic State reached the eastern bank of the Tigris river in Mosul on Sunday for the first time in a three-month, U.S-backed offensive to capture the city from the militants, who still control its entire western half.
The group also claimed one of two attacks at two Baghdad markets in which 20 people were killed, the latest in a recent spate of bombings, tactics to which Islamic State is resorting as it comes under growing pressure in Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq.
Units of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) have fought their way to the eastern bank of the Tigris, spokesman Sabah al-Numan said.
It was the first time Iraqi forces in the city itself have reached the river, which bisects Mosul, since the offensive to drive out Islamic State was launched in October. Iraqi forces already control the Tigris to Mosul’s south.
The CTS has spearheaded advances inside Mosul and is part of a 100,000-strong force backed by U.S. air power of Iraqi troops, Kurdish fighters and Shi’ite militias fighting the militants. After a period of stuttering advances in Mosul, Iraqi forces have gained momentum in a new push since around the start of the year.
CTS forces also clashed with Islamic State fighters near a historic site in eastern Mosul, an officer said, in a bid to drive them out of more neighbourhoods.
“This morning CTS troops advanced in two directions towards the Baladiyat and Sukkar districts,” Lt.General Abdelwahab al-Saadi said.
“During the advance, Daesh (Islamic State) tried to confront us from the historic hill,” he said, apparently referring to a hill located near the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, east of the river and inside Mosul.
Saadi said Iraqi forces and warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition “dealt with” IS fighters positioned on the hill, and dozens were killed.
ISLAMIC STATE ATTACKS
In Baghdad, a suicide attacker killed 13 people when he drove an explosives-rigged car into vegetable market in the mainly Shi’ite Muslim eastern Jamila district, and detonated it, police said. Islamic State claimed the attack in an online statement, saying it had targeted a “gathering of Shi’ites.”
A few hours later, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest blew himself up at a market in another mostly Shi’ite district, Baladiyat, killing seven, according to police and medical sources. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
More than 80 people have been killed in just over a week in attacks in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
Iraq’s Kurdish regional government said in a statement on Sunday that Kurdish and coalition forces killed an Islamic State figure in a joint operation near the city of Kirkuk on Jan. 5.
The operation took place in Hawija, it said. Islamic State have a smaller presence in the area.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)