By Isabel Coles and John Davison
MOSUL/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces battled Islamic State militants in their stronghold of Mosul on Wednesday and took control of the last major road leading west from the city, before bomb blasts ripped through a wedding party near Tikrit, killing more than 20 people.
The blasts in the village of Hajjaj, reported by local officials and medics as suicide attacks, were not immediately claimed, although Islamic State has carried out similar actions as it comes under pressure in Mosul.
A police source said two blasts hit the wedding and two more targeted security forces at the scene shortly afterwards. There were ongoing clashes between security forces and militants in the area, he said.
Inside Mosul, troops battled the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim fighters, who hid among the remaining civilian population and deployed snipers and suicide car bombs to defend their last major Iraq stronghold.
The U.S.-backed campaign to crush the militants saw Iraqi forces recapture the eastern side of the city in January. They launched their assault on the western half last month.
The retreat of Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, which leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared from a mosque in Mosul’s old city in 2014, has been accompanied by bomb attacks in areas outside the group’s control, including Baghdad and cities in neighboring Syria.
The caliphate has spanned large areas in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Losing Mosul would deal a fatal blow to Islamic State’s hold over territory in Iraq.
Fighting is expected to get tougher as Iraqi troops push further into the more densely populated areas in the western half of the city, including the old city.
Militants used car bombs in their counter-attack on Tuesday night around the Nineveh governorate building, Major General Ali Kadhem al-Lami of the Federal Police’s Fifth Division told a Reuters correspondent near the site. “Today we’re clearing the area which was liberated,” he said.
Military officials had said that Rapid Response troops, an elite interior ministry division, recaptured the provincial government headquarters on Tuesday. They also took the central bank branch and a museum where militants had filmed themselves destroying priceless statues in 2015.
“The museum is completely empty of all artifacts. They were stolen, possibly smuggled,” Lami said. Reuters could not get access to the museum to verify his comments.
Lami said most of the fighters that had fought around the governorate building were local, but some were foreigners.
“An order was issued for foreign fighters with families to withdraw with them. Those who do not have a family should stay and fight, whether foreign or local,” he said.
The few families remaining in the nearby Dawasa district said the militants had set some of their homes on fire as security forces advanced and that the militants had fought among themselves.
LAST ROAD FROM MOSUL
On Wednesday, the Iraqi military said the army and Shi’ite paramilitary forces had taken full control of the last major road leading west out of Mosul towards the town of Tal Afar, state TV reported.
The 9th Armoured Division and two Shi’ite fighting groups had “isolated the right bank (western side of Mosul) from Tal Afar”, it said.
The road links Mosul to Tal Afar, another Islamic State stronghold 60 km (40 miles) to the west, and then to the Syrian border.
Shi’ite militias taking part in the Mosul campaign began to close in on Tal Afar late last year, after the offensive was launched. They linked up then with Kurdish fighters to encircle the jihadists.
A 100,000-strong force of Iraqi military units, Shi’ite forces and Kurdish fighters, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, has fought since October in the Mosul campaign.
The jihadist group has lost most of the cities it captured in northern and western Iraq in 2014 and 2015. In Syria, it still holds Raqqa city as its stronghold, as well as most of Deir al-Zor province.
But it is losing ground to an array of separate enemies, including U.S.-backed forces and the Russian-backed Syrian army. It has carried out bombings in Iraqi and Syrian cities as its caliphate has shrunk.
The bombings in Hajjaj village, north of Tikrit, late on Wednesday were not immediately claimed, but are similar to attacks carried out in recent months by Islamic State.
In November deadly and apparently diversionary bomb attacks by the group hit Tikrit and Samarra, both north of Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraq would continue hitting Islamic State targets in Syria and in neighboring countries if they give their approval.
Abadi on Feb. 24 announced the first Iraqi air strike on Syrian territory, targeting Islamic State positions in retaliation for bomb attacks in Baghdad.
“I respect the sovereignty of states, and I have secured the approval of Syria to strike positions (on its territory),” Abadi told a conference in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya on Wednesday.
“I will not hesitate to strike the positions of the terrorists in the neighboring countries,” he said. We will keep on fighting them.”
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Maher Chmaytelli in Baghdad; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Larry King and Catherine Evans)