* Offensive has picked up speed in new year
* Islamic State fighting back and targeting civilians
* All bridges over Tigris in Mosul damaged
* Defeat in Mosul would be decisive blow for the jihadists
By Stephen Kalin and John Davison
ERBIL, Iraq/BAGHDAD, Jan 10 Iraqi forces pushed
Islamic State fighters back further in Mosul on Tuesday in a
renewed effort to seize the northern city and deal a decisive
blow to the militant group, though progress was slower in some
districts, the army said.
Iraqi forces and their allies have captured villages and
towns surrounding Mosul and seized at least two-thirds of its
eastern districts, military officials say, pushing right up to
the eastern bank of the Tigris river in recent days.
But the government had initially hoped to retake Mosul by
the end of 2016 and three months into the U.S.-backed campaign,
the militants still control all the territory to the west of the
Tigris that bisects the city from north to south.
Wounded civilians streamed into nearby hospitals and Iraqi
forces blamed Islamic State for shooting at fleeing residents
and shelling populated areas after losing control of them.
United Nations humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said
nearly 700 people had been taken to hospitals in
Kurdish-controlled areas outside Mosul in the last week and more
than 817 had required hospital treatment a week earlier.
"Trauma casualties remain extremely high, particularly near
frontlines," he told reporters in Geneva.
Recapturing Mosul after more than two years of Islamic State
rule would probably spell the end of the Iraqi side of the
group's self-declared caliphate, which spans Iraq and Syria.
But advances inside Mosul slowed in November and December as
troops engaged in tough urban warfare with the jihadists, who
are thought to number several thousand inside the city.
The militants have fought back with suicide car bombs and
snipers hidden among the civilian population. They have also
blown up bridges crossing the Tigris to try to slow the Iraqi
advance, military officials say.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in December it
would now take another three months to retake Mosul, the largest
city under Islamic State control in Iraq or Syria.
Elite forces in the city's east and northeast have advanced
faster since the turn of the year thanks to new tactics and
better coordination but there was stiff resistance in the
southeast of Mosul, military officials said.
Lt-Colonel Abbas al-Azawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi army's
16th division, said Iraqi forces entered Hadba on Tuesday, a
large northeastern district, though it would likely take more
than a day to capture and IS was deploying suicide bombers.
Elite Iraqi counter-terrorism service (CTS) units encircled
the nearby Sukkar district on Monday and sought to recapture the
strategic Mosul University area.
The United Nations has said Islamic State seized nuclear
material used for scientific research there when the militant
group overran a third of Iraq in 2014.
The CTS and army units want to capture all the eastern bank
of the Tigris so they can launch operations to retake western
Mosul. An army statement and the U.S. coalition said Islamic
State had blown up sections of two bridges linking east and west
Mosul in a bid to hamper crossings by Iraqi forces.
Mosul's five bridges across the Tigris had already been
partially damaged by U.S.-led air strikes to slow the militants'
movement. Coalition spokesman U.S. Air Force Colonel John
Dorrian told Reuters last week the new damage done by retreating
IS fighters was "severe" but would not stop the advance.
"Every day the Iraqi Security Forces go forward and every
day the enemy goes backward or underground," he told reporters
in Erbil in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
Fighting in neighbourhoods in the southeast of Mosul has
been tougher, however, as Iraqi forces push towards the river.
"The challenge is that they (IS) are hiding among civilian
families, that's why our advances are slow and very cautious,"
Lieutenant-Colonel Abdel Amir al-Mohammedawi, a spokesman for
the rapid response units of Iraq's federal police, told Reuters.
He said police and army units had fought their way into the
Palestine and Sumer districts over the last day but Islamic
State fighters were firing at civilians trying to flee.
"The families, when they see Iraqi forces coming, flee from
the areas controlled by Daesh (Islamic State) towards the Iraqi
forces, holding up white flags, and Daesh bomb them with mortars
and Molotov cocktails, and also shoot at them.
"Whenever they withdraw from a district, they shell it at
random, and it's heavy shelling," he said.
Dorrian said militant fighters were hiding in mosques,
schools and hospitals, using civilians as human shields.
One resident reached by phone in a recently recaptured
district of Mosul said shells had continued to fall near his
home, forcing him to move his family to another neighbourhood.
"In the 10 days since we were liberated, the bombs haven't
stopped. Shells fall every day near the house and we've seen
civilians killed and wounded several times," he said, without
giving his name.
Another resident said he had heard an Islamic State radio
broadcast urging fighters to fire at areas were the population
had stayed once the army moved in.
The number of people driven out of their homes by fighting
spiked around the beginning of the new push by Iraqi forces, but
has since returned to previous levels, the U.N.'s Laerke said.
Since the offensive started in October, some 135,000 people
have been displaced, he said, adding that a non-governmental
organisation had opened a field hospital east of Mosul to take
the strain off hospitals in Erbil, some 60 km (40 miles) away.
In a sign Baghdad is keen to revive parts of its economy hit
by Islamic State's expansion more than two years ago, the oil
ministry said this week it might resume exports via a pipeline
to Turkey through Nineveh province, where Mosul is located.
It also invited an Angolan oil company to start work at two
oil fields close to Mosul, which Islamic State withdrew from
months ago, setting oil wells alight as they left.
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Girish Gupta in Erbil; John
Davison, Ahmed Rasheed and Saif Hameed in Baghdad,; Stephanie
Nebehay in Geneva; writing by John Davison; editing by David