Feb 21, 4:29 AM EST

Iraqi forces consolidating gains south of Mosul ahead of moving deeper into city's IS-held western half


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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi forces were consolidating their gains south of Mosul on Tuesday ahead of moving into the city's Islamic State-held western half, a military spokesman said.

The remarks came on the third day of what is expected to be the definitive push to rout the Islamic State group from the city, Iraq's second-largest.

The spokesman of the Joint Military Operation Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, told The Associated Press that nearly 123 square kilometers - about 47 square miles - have been taken south of Mosul since the new push started on Sunday.

The troops now fully control the strategical hill of Abu Saif overlooking the Mosul airport as well as the Hamam al-Alil intersection on the main highway into the city, Rasool said.

Elite Iraqi forces have moved to join the regular army and the security forces on the ground, he added but wouldn't say what the next steps would entail.

Meanwhile, Iraqi state TV broadcast footage on Tuesday showing Iraqi fighter jets pounding IS positions, vehicles and personnel in Mosul's western half. The report didn't say when the airstrikes took place.

Consolidating the gains lays the groundwork for the Iraqi troops' next stage of the operation: entering Mosul's more urban neighborhoods with old and narrow streets, a densely built-up area with a population of up to 750,000 people. It will likely contain booby traps and roadside bombs.

Mosul, which is now the last IS urban stronghold in the country, fell into the hands of the extremists in the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State group captured large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

The battle for Mosul, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, has already driven the militants from the eastern half of the city, which is divided by the Tigris River into the two sectors.

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