IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi troops gained a foothold Tuesday in another neighborhood in the northern city of Mosul after fierce battles against Islamic State militants dug in behind heavy fortifications, according to a top Iraqi commander.
A new analysis, meanwhile, has found that there is a high risk that ISIS will deploy chemical weapons against Mosul civilians or Iraqi troops fighting to retake the city. According to IHS Markit, the extremist group has used chemical weapons at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014, including 19 times in the Mosul area alone.
Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil, of the Iraqi special forces, told The Associated Press that ISIS fighters were firing rockets and mortars as his forces "cautiously" advanced in the densely populated Zohour neighborhood. "There are too many civilians still living there," he said.
Iraqi troops began their siege of Zohour on Sunday as they fortified their positions in neighborhoods already retaken in eastern Mosul. Suicide bombings, sniper fire and concerns over the safety of civilians — there are 1 million still in Mosul — have combined to slow down progress in the campaign to liberate the city, which began Oct. 17.
Guards stand at a checkpoint near burning oil fields in Qayara, south of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. For months, residents of the Iraqi town of Qayara have lived in the darkness from a cloud of toxic fumes released by oil fields lit by retreating Islamic State fighters.
Photo Credit: Felipe Dana/AP
Mosul is Iraq's second-largest city and the largest to have fallen to the militants. Most gains in the campaign so far have been made by the special forces operating east of the Tigris River. Other forces, including the Kurdish peshmerga and volunteer Sunni militiamen, are advancing on the city from different directions, and the U.S.-led coalition is providing airstrikes and other support.
A coalition airstrike on Monday destroyed a major bridge over the Tigris in the southern part of Mosul, cutting ISIS supply lines to the east bank, where most of the fighting is taking place. The coalition has destroyed three bridges in Mosul, and Iraqi officers said the two remaining bridges in the city are also likely to be hit. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
The Iraqi troops are expected to use U.S.-made pontoon bridges when they need to cross the Tigris later in the campaign.
ISIS captured Mosul in a matter of days in the summer of 2014, when it swept across northern and central Iraq. IHS Markit, a London-based intelligence analysis firm, says the extremists later used the city as a center for the production of chemical weapons.
The experts believe ISIS moved the materials and its chemical weapons specialists out of Mosul ahead of the Iraqi offensive, but may still use crude chemical weapons like chlorine and mustard agents as the troops press deeper into the city.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari meanwhile told reporters during a visit to Budapest that 1,700 militants have been killed and 120 captured since the battle for Mosul began. A third of Ninevah province, where Mosul is the capital, has been liberated so far, he said, adding that progress in the city has been slowed by the militants' use of human shields.
He said that because of Iraq's "extraordinary situation," it would need to increase its crude oil output, which provides 90 percent of state revenues, and be exempt from OPEC quotas.
Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the Islamic State group is believed to have used chemical weapons 52 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014, not 71 times.