U.S. forces backing Iraqi troops retaking Mosul from ISIS carried out an air strike on a bridge spanning the Tigris river, restricting militant movements between western and eastern parts of the city, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.
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U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service forces are pushing deeper into east of Mosul, the last major city under control of the Sunni hard-line group in Iraq, while army and police units, Shi'ite militias and Kurdish fighters surround it to the west, south and north.
Militants have steadily retreated from areas around Mosul into the city. But the army's early advances have slowed as militants dig in, using the more than 1 million civilians inside the city as a shield, moving through tunnels, and hitting advancing troops with suicide bombers, snipers and mortar fire.
Five bridges span the Tigris that runs through Mosul. They have all been mined and boobytrapped by militants who took over the city two years ago as they swept through northern Iraq and declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Despite planting mines on them, the militants have so far been able to continue using bridges which have not yet been destroyed in air strikes.
Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, on Tuesday said an air strike has taken out the number four bridge, the southernmost, in the past 48 hours.
"This effort impedes Daesh's freedom of movement in Mosul, it inhibits their ability to resupply or reinforce their fighters throughout the city," he said using an Arabic acronym for the militant group.
Iraqi Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the military's joint operations command, said he could not confirm the air strike. But he said all the bridges across the river are mined by ISIS.
A month ago, a U.S. air strike destroyed the No. 2 bridge in the center of the city and two weeks later another strike took out the No. 5 bridge to the north.
But the United Nations' International Organization for Migration expressed concern that the destruction of the bridges could obstruct the evacuation of civilians.
"That is a concern of IOM because this is going to leave hundreds of thousands without a quick way out of the combat," spokesman Joel Millman told reporters in Geneva.
The battle for Mosul, launched five weeks ago, is turning into the largest military campaign in more than a decade of conflict in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi military estimates around 5,000 ISIS fighters are in Mosul. A 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government forces, Kurdish fighters and Shi'ite paramilitary units is surrounding the city.
Mosul's capture would be a major step towards dismantling the caliphate, and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believed to have withdrawn to a remote area near the Syrian border, has told his fighters to stay and fight to the end.
Counter terrorism units and an army armored division are the only forces to have breached the city limits from the eastern side. Other army and federal police units have yet to enter the northern and the southern sides.
Iranian-backed militias have captured the Tal Afar air base, west of Mosul, part of their campaign to choke off the route between the Syrian and Iraqi parts of the caliphate ISIS declared in 2014.
The number of people displaced because of the fighting in and around Mosul has slightly decreased, an indication some began returning their homes in places retaken by government forces, according the IOM.
"68,112 displaced is actually a downtick from couple of days ago," said Millman. It's "worth noting because it indicates that some people are already starting to return to safe areas in the region."
The number of displaced was over 68,500 on Monday. The figure does not include the thousands of people rounded up in villages around Mosul and forced to accompany ISIS fighters to cover their retreat towards the city.