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Apr 25, 4:54 AM EDT

Iraqi troops capture largest neighborhood in western Mosul


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AP Photo/Bram Janssen

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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi troops on Tuesday drove out Islamic State militants from the largest neighborhood in the western half of the city of Mosul, a senior military commander said, a major development in the months-long fight to recapture the country's second-largest city.

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces declared eastern Mosul "fully liberated" in January, after officially launching the operation to retake the city in October.

In February, the troops started a new push to clear Mosul's western side of IS militants, but weeks later their push stalled mainly due to stiff resistance by the Sunni militant group.

On Tuesday, special forces Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi told The Associated Press that the sprawling al-Tanek neighborhood was now "fully liberated and under full control" of the security forces. Al-Saadi did not provide more details.

To the east of al-Tanek, Iraqi forces have been facing tough resistance from IS in Mosul's Old City, an area that stretches along the Tigris River, which divides Mosul into its eastern and western half. The Old City's narrow alleys and densely populated areas have made it hard for troops to move forward.

Also Tuesday, the government-sanctioned paramilitary troops, made up mainly of Shiite militiamen, launched a new push to retake the town of Hatra to the south of Mosul. The force's spokesman, Ahmed al-Asadi, said the operation is being conducted from three directions with aerial support from the Iraqi Air Force. Al-Asadi did not elaborate.

Hatra is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site of the same name that was destroyed by IS as part of the militant's efforts to demolish archaeological sites in and around Mosul. The extremists consider the priceless archaeological treasures - some dating back as far as 3,000 B.C. - as idolatry but have at the same time smuggled and sold many looted artifacts to fund their war.

Mosul fell to IS in the summer of 2014, along with large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

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