Jan 16, 8:49 AM EST

Iraqi commander says fierce clashes with Islamic State militants underway in eastern Mosul


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AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

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Iraqi commander says fierce clashes with Islamic State militants underway in eastern Mosul

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MOSUL, Iraq (AP) -- Iraqi special forces battled Islamic State militants on Monday in two key neighborhoods in the eastern half of Mosul, a senior commander said, advancing deeper after fully routing IS from the sprawling complex of the Mosul University, a major step in the massive operation to retake the city.

According to Gen. Abdel Ghani al-Asadi, the head of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces, the troops pushed deeper into the Shurta and Andalus neighborhoods. The two are among the last remaining sectors between government-held territory in eastern Mosul and the Tigris River, which divides the city.

In Andalus, bulldozers pushed aside road blocks ahead of a long convoy of black Humvees. Residents said the IS fighters had fled, just an hour before the assault began. Al-Aridi said the retreat showed the recent string of territorial victories had broken the will of the militants.

"The pace is medium, we're moving slowly because our forces are worried about bombs," he said.

IS sent six suicide car bombers to target the advancing Iraqi forces, but unlike in the first weeks of the Mosul operation, most of the cars used on Monday were not heavily armored and were disabled with tank fire.

One suicide bomber managed to drive his explosives-laden car through a roadblock and hit an Iraqi convoy. The blast shattered windows for blocks around, carpeting a quiet residential street with shrapnel.

At least one Humvee was torn apart by the attack and four soldiers were slightly wounded, according to an Iraqi officer overseeing the operation who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Iraqi state television showed live images of morning clashes near the five-star Ninevah International Hotel, one of the city's iconic buildings. In the footage, Humvees are seen driving by burnt-out buildings against a backdrop of explosions and gunfire.

Al-Aridi said Iraqi forces expect to reach the last remaining bridges that span the Tigris within days.

Four months into the Mosul operation, Iraqi forces say they control nearly all of the city's eastern half, but another wave of intense IS resistance likely awaits them in Mosul's west.

The western half of the city is home to some of Mosul's oldest neighborhoods, with narrow streets that will further complicate the urban fight. Also, the United Nations estimates that more than 700,000 people are trapped there, living under siege-like conditions.

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Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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