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ISIS, Iraqi forces battle for control of Mosul University

Iraqi forces have won a string of swift territorial gains in Mosul in the fight against ISIS after four months of slow progress, but resistance from the militant group persists at various locations, including the city's university complex.

Iraqi forces in 4th month of fight, with only a third of the city recaptured

A member of Iraqi Special Operations Forces carries a rocket launcher at Mosul University during a battle with ISIS militants on Saturday. (Ahmed Saad/Reuters)

Iraqi forces have won a string of swift territorial gains in Mosul in the fight against ISIS after four months of slow progress, but resistance from the militant group persists at various locations, including the city's university complex.

Iraqi military commanders say troops had secured more than half of Mosul University by Saturday against stiff resistance, including snipers perched within classrooms, dormitories and behind the trees that line the campus streets.

Iraqi special forces take up positions inside the Mosul University complex on Saturday. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

The massive operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has captured about a third of the city since October.

Government troops retook the eastern edge of a third bridge in Mosul on Saturday and a cluster of buildings inside Mosul university, according to a senior Iraqi officer overseeing the operation.

A commander of Iraqi forces says his troops blew up a building at the university complex where ISIS fighters had gathered. (Ahmed Saad/Reuters )

Iraqi forces now control the eastern sides of three of the city's five bridges that span the Tigris river connecting Mosul's east to west. Warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition bombed the city's bridges late last year in an effort to isolate ISIS fighters in the city's east by disrupting resupply routes.

Iraqi forces entered the university from the southeast on Friday morning and by nightfall had secured a handful of buildings, Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil and Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi said on a tour of the university Saturday.

Iraqi special forces advance inside the university grounds. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

"We watched all the ISIS fighters gather in that building, so we blew it up," said special forces Sgt. Maj. Haytham Ghani pointing to one of the blackened technical college buildings where charred desks could be seen inside. "You can still see some of their corpses," he added.

Thick clouds of black smoke rose from the middle of the sprawling complex on Saturday morning. By afternoon, clashes had intensified with volleys of sniper and mortar fire targeting the advancing Iraqi forces. Convoys of Iraqi Humvees snaked through the campus, pausing for artillery and airstrikes to clear snipers perched within classrooms, dormitories and behind the trees that line the campus streets.

The interior of a burned-out building is seen at Mosul University. (Ahmed Saad/Reuters)

As Iraqi forces have closed in on the Tigris river that roughly divides Mosul into eastern and western halves, their pace has quickened. ISIS defences in the city's east appear to be thinning and unlike in the surrounding neighbourhoods, Iraqi officers said they believe Mosul university and recently retaken government buildings are largely empty of civilians — allowing them to use air cover more liberally.

Iraqi soldiers at Mosul University said while they were still coming under heavy small arms fire, ISIS resistance was significantly less than they faced during the first weeks of the Mosul operation.

Government troops retook a cluster of buildings inside the university, according to a senior Iraqi officer overseeing the operation. (Ahmed Saad/Reuters )

"We were targeted with only four car bombs where before (ISIS) would send 20 in one day," special forces Lt. Zain al-Abadeen said. "And they aren't armoured like before, they're just using civilian cars."

Medics operating a small field hospital in eastern Mosul said civilian casualties have dropped significantly over the past three days as Iraqi forces moved into government complexes like the university rather than dense civilian neighbourhoods.

Despite the massive operation to retake Mosul, the militant group maintains tight control of the city's western half where Iraqi forces will likely encounter another wave of heavy ISIS resistance. The west of the city is home to some of Mosul's densest neighbourhoods and an estimated 700,000 civilians.

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