MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi special forces stormed the Mosul University complex in the city’s northeast on Friday and pushed forward to reach another bridge across the Tigris river, beating Islamic State further back, the military said.
The militants were fighting back at the university, which they seized when they took over the city in 2014. There were heavy clashes inside the campus, a Reuters reporter said.
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Iraqi forces have recaptured most districts in eastern Mosul in nearly three months of a U.S.-backed offensive.
A senior Iraqi counter-terrorism service (CTS) officer said the university was the most important Islamic State base in the eastern half of the city.
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Iraqi forces aim to take full control of the eastern bank of the Tigris river, which bisects Mosul from north to south, before they can launch attacks on the west, which Islamic State still fully holds.
Driving the ultra-hardline group out of its Mosul stronghold will probably spell the end for the Iraqi side of its self-styled caliphate that stretches across areas of Iraq and Syria.
“The operation today which took the terrorist elements by surprise was the storming of the University of Mosul,” the senior CTS officer, Sami al-Aridhi, said.
He said the CTS had taken over a hill overlooking parts of the campus, including the technical college. “Forces are heading into the depths of the university,” he said.
Earlier in the day, bulldozers smashed through a wall surrounding the campus and dozens of CTS troops sprinted through carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers, a Reuters reporter said.
An Iraqi officer said army units backed by air strikes had also taken control of Hadba district, north of the university, and would aid the assault on the complex.
The recapture of the university would be an important gain because it would enable further advances as it overlooks areas closer to the river, another commander said this week.
In a separate advance further south in the city, other elite CTS units reached the 2nd Bridge, also called Freedom Bridge, one of five across the Tigris, the military statement reported by state TV said.
Iraqi forces have now reached Mosul’s two southernmost bridges, having battled their way to the 4th Bridge several days ago.
Assaults on the western half of Mosul are expected to begin once Iraqi forces have secured the east bank.
WATCH: Iraqi forces inch closer to Mosul
All the bridges have been hit by U.S. coalition air strikes in an effort to hamper Islamic State militants’ movement across the city. U.S. and Iraqi military officials say Islamic State has caused further damage to at least two of them to try to hamper any Iraqi advance across the river.
Islamic State seized nuclear materials used for scientific research from Mosul University when they overran it in 2014, the United Nations says.
The U.S.-backed campaign to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, involving a 100,000-strong force of Iraqi troops, Kurdish fighters and Shi’ite militias, began in October.
(Reporting by Isabel Coles in Mosul; John Davison and Saif Hameed in Baghdad; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Janet Lawrence)