MOSUL, Iraq, March 15 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi government forces battling Islamic State (IS) militants retook control of a town west of Mosul, while the troops fought fierce clashes in the old city center of western Mosul, the Iraqi military said Wednesday.
The federal police and Rapid Response brigades, the elite Interior Ministry units, continued their slow advance amid fierce resistance by IS militants in the newly-freed Bab al-Toub neighborhood and adjacent areas, the Joint Operations Command (JOC) said in a statement.
The troops also carried out an operation to clear the adjacent freed areas from booby-trapped buildings and mines, the statement said, adding that the troops killed nine IS snipers and destroying five car bombs and three of the IS vehicles.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Raid Shakir Jawdat, the commander of the federal police forces, told reporters that the troops freed the foot of a bridge across Tigris, locally known as the Iron Bridge after fierce clashes with IS militants.
The bridge is the third of the city's five bridges that have been seized by the troops. The recapture of the bridge is crucial for Iraqi forces to bring in reinforcements and supplies directly from eastern Mosul.
All of Mosul's five bridges, spanning the Tigris River to the city's eastern bank, were destroyed by airstrikes last year.
The progress by Rapid Response units was slowed by heavy street-to-street battles at the southern edge of the old city center, as snipers of both side topped many buildings at the lines of clashes in Bab-al-Toub neighborhood and nearby areas, Jawdat added.
Also in the day, the commandos of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) pushed into the neighborhoods of Nablus, Yabsat, Risala and Wadi al-Ayn, locally known as the right bank of the Tigris River, which bisects Mosul, the JOC statement said.
The battles in the western part of Mosul brought the CTS troops closer to the western edge of Mosul's densely populated old city center, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under IS rule.
Near Mosul, the army's 9th armored Division and the Shiite paramilitary Hashd Shaabi unit recaptured the town of Badush, some 10 km northwest of Mosul, and a nearby village after days of fierce clashes against IS militants, leaving many extremist militants killed and destroying three car bombs, according to the statement.
The presence of armored division and the Hashd Shaabi is aimed at surrounding Mosul from the west and northwest to cut off the escape route from Mosul and the neighboring Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, announced the start of an offensive on Feb. 19 to drive extremist militants out of the western side of Mosul.
Late in January, Abadi declared the liberation of the eastern side of Mosul, or the left bank of Tigris, after more than 100 days of fighting against IS militants.
However, the western part of Mosul, with its narrow streets and a population of between 750,000 and 800,000, appears to be a bigger challenge to the Iraqi forces.
Mosul, 400 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, has been under IS control since June 2014, when government forces abandoned their weapons and fled, enabling IS militants to take control of parts of Iraq's northern and western regions.