Iraqi forces battling Islamic State militants reached a key bridge in the city of Mosul, as they pushed forward with their week-old offensive to clear IS from the western side of the city.
Officials said pro-government forces were in control of a section of what is known as the fourth bridge, or the southernmost bridge across the Tigris River. Fighting in Mosul has badly damaged or destroyed all of the bridges, and restoring access across the river will allow the army to move troops and supplies.
As the fighting in western Mosul intensifies, there is concern about civilians living there. The United Nations has described a humanitarian crisis in the area with people facing severe shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies.
Many of those civilians fled to western Mosul after being forced from the eastern part of the city, which Iraqi forces took back after a three-month fight that began last November.
James Jeffrey, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that so far Iraqi forces have been careful in western Mosul, drawing on experience they had with the civilian population while retaking places such as Tikrit and Ramadi.
"You're always concerned about civilian casualties, but it comes at two levels," Jeffrey told VOA. "One is civilian casualties that are either deliberate or non-deliberate but are so massive that they have an impact on the morale and the attitude of a whole civilian population — that’s Aleppo. I don’t see that happening here."
US military assistance
U.S.-led coalition troops, officially deployed as trainers and advisers, have assisted the Iraqi force in the Mosul offensive.
Under a current bilateral agreement, U.S. forces are not authorized to engage in combat. But, as the Mosul offensive gained strength last week, U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said advisers were positioned so close to the frontlines that they had come under attack and returned fire.
Since the government push began February 19, U.S. and Iraqi commanders have described fierce Islamic State resistance as the extremist force seeks to hold its last significant urban area in the war-ravaged country.
As the latest offensive unfolded, Iraqi expert Houchang Hassan-Yari of the Royal Military College of Canada warned VOA's Persian service that the density of the civilian population in western Mosul would slow the government advance.
Hassan-Yari noted that government forces and their coalition partners have imposed restrictions on firepower available to retake the western sectors "in order to save the lives of civilians."
Meanwhile, aid agencies are preparing for the possibility that up to 250,000 people might flee Mosul in the coming days or weeks.
The U.N. refugee agency has said it is focusing its efforts on building new camps to house the displaced. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has completed eight camps and says it is planning to start work at another site south of Mosul.
VOA's Victor Beattie, and Parisa Farhadi, Babak Azma and Sara Dehghan of the VOA Persian service contributed to this report.