BAGHDAD – U.S.-backed Iraqi government troops announced on Wednesday they were in "full control" of eastern Mosul, after routing Islamic State militants from that part of the northern city almost exactly three months since the major operation started.
The achievement was a "big victory," said Iraqi Army Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, who commands the counter-terrorism forces, describing the success of the Iraqi forces as "unprecedented."
Shaghatai, who spoke to reporters in the town of Bartella, just east of Mosul, said plans were now being drawn up to retake the western part of the city. He did not elaborate on when that part of the operation would begin.
Wednesday's advance came after Iraqi troops over the past days intensified their push into the last IS-held neighborhoods in Mosul's eastern sector, closing in on the Tigris River, which roughly divides the city. Stiff resistance by the militants, thousands of civilians being trapped in their houses by the fighting and bad weather had in the past slowed the advances of the troops.
However, skirmishes and clashes continued in some pockets along the Tigris in eastern Mosul, according to Iraqi special forces Maj. Ali Hussein who said his unit was still pushing into the Ghabat area along the river bank. Small arms fire could be heard and at least one civilian was wounded by mortar fire.
Also, some commanders on the ground disputed Shaghati's claim of "full control" of eastern Mosul, with Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Raheed Yar Allah saying the eastern side "has not been fully liberated ... and the advance is still continuing."
Yar Allah, who commands army operations in Ninevah, where Mosul is the provincial capital, said the special forces "have done their duty" in eastern Mosul.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a statement, posted on his website, saying that "work is underway to liberate" Ghabat and the area housing Saddam Hussein's former presidential palaces in eastern Mosul. He also vowed to liberate the western side of the city.
But the prospect of retaking western Mosul looms heavy on Iraqi forces, despite all the support they have by the U.S.-led coalition, as well as Sunni and Shiite volunteer militias. The western half of the city is home to some of Mosul's oldest neighborhoods, with narrow streets packed with buildings that will further complicate the urban fight.
So far in the Mosul offensive, Iraq's counterterrorism forces, which are by far the military's most battle seasoned unit, have done most of the fighting, advancing from east of the city.
Regular Iraqi army troops are pushing from the city's southeast and northern edges, and the federal security forces from farther to the west.
Mosul — Iraq's second-largest city and the Islamic State group's last urban stronghold in the country — fell to IS in the summer of 2014, when the militant group captures large swaths of northern and western Iraq.
The operation has also left more than 148,000 people homeless, according to the United Nations. Nearly 12,500 people have been forced to flee their homes just over the past week, the U.N. said.
More than 1 million people were estimated to still be living in Mosul in October, when Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake the city.
Associated Press writer Susannah George in Mosul, Iraq, contributed to this report.