BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched on Sunday a new push toward the Islamic State-held old city center of Mosul, on the western bank of the Tigris river, an Iraqi military spokesman said.
Iraqi forces are fighting their way toward the old center of the city, advancing from the south and the southwest, Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command, told state-run television.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19.
Their advance in western Mosul paused over the past 48 hours because of bad weather.
Another Iraqi commanders said troops were advancing on the local government complex in western Mosul amid the "heaviest" fighting since the start of the operation over two weeks ago.
Maj. Gen. Haider al-Maturi of the Federal Police Commandos Division told the Associated Press that ISIS fighters dispatched at least six suicide car bombs, all of which were destroyed before reaching the troops.
Al-Maturi said his forces were about 500 meters from the government complex. He also said militants were moving from house to house and deploying snipers.
A US general on the ground said the Iraqi offensive against ISIS in western Mosul was on schedule but cautioned that it would get harder before it got easier.
"We are on (a good) timeline and we are fairly confident that the Iraqis are learning every day, and we are fairly confident they are going to continue to progress well," Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe, a deputy commanding general for coalition land forces, told AFP.
The Iraqi advance is approaching densely populated sections of the city, were narrow streets and alleys would require Iraqi forces to dismount armored vehicles and advance on foot, likely engaging ISIS militants in deadly room-to-room, house-to-house, street-to-street battles.
"Make no mistake about it, as we get closer to the center of the city, it just gets tougher and tougher because of the terrain that the Iraqi security forces are about to enter," Uribe told AFP in a phone interview from Baghdad.
US Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top US commander in Iraq, said this week that about 2,000 ISIS fighters were left in and around western Mosul. "There's significant numbers that are still able to defend that city," he said.
Townsend has also estimated that there are likely 12,000 to 15,000 ISIS militants left in Iraq and Syria, with roughly half likely in each country.
Defeating Islamic State in Mosul would crush the Iraqi wing of the caliphate declared by the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2014, over parts of Iraq and Syria.
Since the campaign against ISIS in Mosul started in mid-October, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been displaced, flooding, and at times overwhelming, Iraqi and international aid groups on the ground there.
Over 50,000 people have reportedly fled western Mosul, and more than 190,000 people are thought to currently be displaced by the fighting.
"The top priority for humanitarians is to make sure that there is sufficient capacity at emergency sites to deal with the number of civilians who are fleeing western Mosul," Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said.
"In the past several weeks, we have been rushing to ... construct that capacity, and we are redoubling our efforts now."
(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, editing by Louise Heavens)