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05 December 2016 Monday

Turkey launched its second military surveillance satellite — the Gokturk 1 — from the Kourou Launch Center in the French Guiana on Monday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with several other top Turkish officials witnessed the launch of the communication satellite during a ceremony at the Turkish Aerospace Industry (TAI) in Ankara.

The satellite put into orbit is a high-resolution optical earth observation satellite for civilian and military applications, which has a capability of scanning high-resolution images (up to 0.8 meters) and an onboard X-band digital imaging system to handle data compression, storage, and downloading, according to the Turkish Armed Forces.

Addressing the ceremony, Erdogan said developing and manufacturing more advanced satellites than Gokturk 1 was the next target for Turkey.

“With a scanning capability up to 0.5-meter (1.64-foot) resolution, we will benefit from the satellite in wide areas ranging from damage assessment after natural disasters to harvest forecasts,” the president said in televised comments.

“Today, Turkey’s external dependence in the defense industry is half the amount of what it used to be 14 years ago. Domestic participation rate in this satellite [industry] is 20 percent,” he added, highlighting that Turkey remains committed to ending its foreign dependency in the defense and space sectors.

Apart from its military applications, the satellite’s imaging capabilities could be used to monitor forest control, illegal construction, crop management, and casualty assessment after natural disasters.

Television broadcasts and satellite communication signals of the satellite would be able to cover the entire Africa continent.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/181245/turkey-launches-second-military-surveillance-satellite.

17 November 2016 Thursday

Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday agreed to further expand the mutual cooperation between the two brotherly countries in diverse fields.

They agreed to further deepen the existing cooperation in trade and defense relations, settlement of Kashmir dispute in accordance with the UN resolutions, joint efforts for durable peace in Afghanistan and elimination of terrorism.

The two had one-on-one meeting which was followed by a delegation level meeting at the Presidency.

Mamnoon proposed to conclude a comprehensive and long-term “Framework Agreement for Defense Cooperation” between Pakistan and Turkey, which was agreed by the visiting dignitary.

He expressed satisfaction at Turkey’s cooperation for its submarine upgrade and acquiring of Super Mashshak trainer aircraft from Pakistan by Turkey.

Erdogan said that bilateral defense cooperation between the two countries would grow further in the coming days, adding that in that regard all necessary measures would be taken.

The two leaders agreed that Kashmir dispute should be resolved in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations. Expressing concern over human rights violations in Indian Occupied Kashmir, President Mamnoon Hussain called for an inquiry of these atrocities under the UN auspices.

The Pakistani president thanked Turkish president on Turkey’s support on Kashmir issue and reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for Turkey’s position on Cyprus. He hoped that the issue would be resolved soon on which the Turkish president thanked the president and the government.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Deputy Secretary General and Spokesperson Ibrahim Kaln, Ambassador of Turkey to Pakistan Sadik Babur Girgin, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry and other senior officials were also present.

He noted that bilateral trade between Pakistan and Turkey had declined during the last few years and emphasized the need to enhance it.

Agreeing to the suggestion, Erdogan stressed the need for joint ventures for enhancing bilateral trade and said soon there would be improvement in that regard.

Mamnoon hoped that Turkish investors would invest in Pakistan’s energy and infrastructure sectors.

He expressed satisfaction over growing Turkish investment in Pakistan.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/180314/pakistan-turkey-agree-to-deepen-trade-defence-relations.

November 17, 2016

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s order for 400 Turkish nationals, mostly schoolteachers and their families, to leave the country within 72 hours was being challenged in court on Thursday as hundreds of students took to the streets to denounce the expulsions.

The developments come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making a high-profile visit to Pakistan. The Turkish nationals include staff at the PakTurk International school chain and their family members. Ankara has accused the school of links with the movement of U.S.-based dissident cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Pak-Turk denies.

Erdogan has accused Gulen supporters of staging the failed July 15 coup in Turkey. The school on Thursday posted a new statement on its website saying the “PakTurk International Schools and Colleges in Pakistan have no affiliation or connection with any political individual or any movement or organization.”

The Islamabad High Court, which took up the petition by the 400 Turkish nationals, heard arguments from the school’s lawyer on Thursday before a break in the proceedings, according to court official Faheem Rizvi.

The petition said the expulsion would adversely affect 11,000 students in 28 branches of the school across the country. It requested that the orders be rescinded and that the school’s expatriate staff be allowed to continue to work in Pakistan, he said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of PakTurk students blocked the main road in the eastern city of Lahore to protest the expulsion orders, said Pakistani police officer Adnan Naseer. “Don’t play with our future,” student Tariq Ahmad told Pakistani Capital News TV.

After talks in Islamabad, Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a joint press conference, pledging to enhance bilateral cooperation, share their experience in fighting terrorism and complete a free trade agreement by the end of 2017.

Erdogan was to address the Pakistani parliament later in the day. On the expulsion issue, Erdogan thanked the Pakistani government for taking action against what he described as supporters of Gulen’s network, and assured the media that PakTurk students will not suffer.

Erdogan also said Turkey is seeking help from allies in dismantling Gulen’s “evil netywork,” which he claimed was also a threat to Pakistan’s security.

November 16, 2016

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the country’s powerful army chief left Wednesday for a strategically located secret area bordering India to witness a military exercise of ground and air power amid increasing tension with India over Kashmir.

Planes, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons will be used during Wednesday’s exercise, which is aimed at checking preparedness of the army in reacting to any hostile situations, two officials said.

The drills come three days after Indian fire in Kashmir killed seven Pakistani soldier. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif will witness the exercise less than two weeks before he retires after completing his three-year term. The government has not announced who will be the new army chief.

Tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals have increased in recent months after militant attacks on Indian military facilities in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. India has blamed Pakistan-based militants for the attacks, a charge Pakistan denies.

Despite pleas from the United Nations, the two sides have continued to exchange fire in the disputed Himalayan region. The violence has forced thousands of villagers on the Pakistani side to flee for safety.

India says it has been retaliating for Pakistani violations of a 2003 cease-fire. Two of the three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947 have been fought over their competing claims to Kashmir. Each has administered part of Kashmir since 1947.

November 14, 2016

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s military says Indian troops fired on its soldiers in Kashmir on Monday, killing seven of them and prompting return fire, as officials warned that the tense standoff between the nuclear-armed rivals could escalate.

The two sides have traded fire repeatedly in recent weeks across the Line of Control, which divides the Himalayan region into Indian and Pakistani-controlled zones. The two nuclear rivals each claim the entire territory, and have fought two of their three wars over it.

“The international community should pay attention,” Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif told Geo News TV. “It can escalate. This could be catastrophic for the region.” He added that Pakistani troops had also inflicted losses on the Indian army, without elaborating.

An Indian army officer said Pakistan had fired on Indian troops in a breach of the cease-fire, and that they “effectively retaliated.” The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, said there were no casualties on the Indian side.

The latest escalation was set off by a September attack on an Indian military base by Pakistani militants. India blamed the attack on Pakistan, which has denied involvement. Tensions have run high since Indian troops killed a Kashmiri militant leader in July. The killing ignited some of the most violent protests in years, and dozens of people have been killed in India’s resulting crackdown.

Pakistani foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz said there has been an increase in the duration and frequency of indiscriminate firing by India, which has in recent weeks killed 26 civilians and wounded over 100 in villages near the frontier.

“The Indian actions, which constituted a threat to the maintenance of peace and security, may lead to strategic miscalculation,” he said.

Associated Press writer Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India contributed.

Beijing (AFP)

Nov 1, 2016

Malaysia and China signed a defense deal and pledged closer cooperation in the South China Sea Tuesday, signalling a potential strategic shift by Premier Najib Razak as his ties with the United States fray over a corruption scandal.

Najib’s week-long trip marks another potential setback for Washington’s “pivot” toward Asia, two weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte of longtime US ally the Philippines visited China with olive branch in hand.

Meeting at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Najib and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang witnessed the signing of nine agreements spanning defense, business and other spheres.

“I believe this visit will bring our bilateral ties to a new high… a historic high,” Najib said prior to meeting with Li.

Asked for details of the defense arrangement, Chinese vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said that the two countries were “focusing on naval cooperation,” adding that the deal “marks a big event in our bilateral ties.”

China and Malaysia have an outstanding territorial dispute in the South China Sea, which is claimed almost in its entirety by Beijing.

Parts of the vast maritime region are also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, among others, who have found themselves caught in an increasingly tense dispute between the US and China over Beijing’s construction of military-capable artificial islands in the region.

“China and Malaysia are littoral states of the South China Sea so we need to enhance our cooperation to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea and enhance our mutual trust,” Liu said.

— Separation anxiety —

Last month in Beijing, Duterte stunned observers by announcing his country’s “separation” from longstanding partner the United States.

Though he subsequently backed off, saying their alliance remained intact, the episode underlined China’s increasing diplomatic and economic gravitational pull at the expense of the United States.

Najib’s visit provides fresh evidence, said Southeast Asia politics analyst Bridget Welsh.

“This is the new regional norm. Now China is implementing the power and the US is in retreat,” she said, adding Washington’s Asia “pivot” was “dead in the water”.

Taking office in 2009, Najib reached out to Washington, and relations warmed following decades of periodic distrust.

But he has increasingly leaned toward China as it became Malaysia’s biggest trading partner, and especially after the eruption last year of a massive corruption scandal implicating Najib and a state investment fund he founded.

Billions are alleged to have been siphoned from the fund, 1MDB, in a stunning international campaign of embezzlement and money-laundering that has sparked investigations in several countries.

Najib’s ties with Washington became strained when the US Justice Department moved in July to seize more than $1 billion in assets it says were purchased by Najib relatives and associates using stolen 1MDB money.

Justice Department filings said a “Malaysian Official 1” took part in the looting. Malaysia has since admitted that official was Najib.

Najib and 1MDB deny wrongdoing and have railed at foreign forces they say concocted the scandal.

1MDB launched a fire sale of assets to stay solvent, and China’s biggest nuclear energy producer China General Nuclear Power Corporation came to the rescue last year, purchasing its power assets for $2.3 billion.

Depressed oil prices have slashed government revenue in energy-exporting Malaysia, which also faces rising public-sector debt.

“This trip reflects not only Malaysia’s geostrategic re-alignment to China as the ‘regional banker’ but also the reality that Najib is desperate for alternative financial sources,” Welsh said.

China has increasingly won major infrastructure and other projects in Malaysia.

Among the agreements was one to build a new rail line on Malaysia’s east coast.

Later this week Najib will meet President Xi Jinping, as well as Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba…

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Malaysia_PM_signs_defence_deal_in_tilt_toward_China_999.html.

November 29, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — When Iraq’s top generals finalized the plan to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group, they gave themselves six months to finish the job. “It was the maximum time cap,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said last week. “We had to plan for the worst, so we don’t get surprised.”

Six weeks into the battle, the force made up of 50,000 troops, Shiite and Sunni tribal militias and Kurdish fighters is a long way from winning back the country’s second-largest city. The fight is showing the limitations of Iraq’s military and security forces, suggesting it has still not fully recovered from the collapse it suffered two years ago in the face of the militants’ blitz across much of northern and western Iraq.

As expected, IS militants are tenaciously defending their last major foothold in Iraq, and the 1 million civilians who remain inside prevent the use of overwhelming firepower. But what is alarming, according to Iraqi field commanders, is that the progress so far has been lopsided. The battle-seasoned special forces are doing most of the fighting and slowly advancing inside the city. Other military outfits are halted outside the city limits, unable to move forward because of resistance, battle fatigue, inexperience or lack of weaponry suited for urban warfare.

Another major challenge for the Iraqis is the command of large and disparate forces maneuvering for a coordinated assault on a large city, according to retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the top American soldier in northern Iraq during the troop surge of 2007-2008.

“This will continue to be a tough fight,” he said. Many of the Iraqi army commanders are seasoned, but “most of the soldiers are young, new and have not experienced combat.” The special forces are under considerable pressure to push on, slugging it out through treacherously narrow streets and alleys while enduring a daily barrage of suicide bombings and mortar and rocket shells.

As policy, the Iraqi military does not release casualty figures, but special forces’ officers speak privately of scores killed and wounded. “We must continue to advance because we suffer fewer casualties than if we hold still and wait for other units to advance in their sectors,” said Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil of the special forces. “We are trying to advance cautiously to minimize casualties, and we are convinced that we will eventually be asked to liberate the western sector of the city when we are done here.”

That may be a while yet. The special forces have driven IS militants from about 15 of eastern Mosul’s estimated 39 neighborhoods, some of which are no more than a handful of blocks. Their progress to date places them about 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) from the Tigris River, which divides the city in half.

It’s a deceptively short distance: The area is densely built up and heavily populated, and the men are advancing on multiple fronts, constantly assigning valuable resources to securing their flanks and rear as they capture more territory. For example, in a week of fighting, they have only taken about 60 percent of the large and densely populated Zohour neighborhood, site of one of Mosul’s busiest food markets.

Mosul’s eastern half has a greater population than the western half. In a positive note, coalition airstrikes that cut off the city’s four bridges across the river have helped reduce the number of car bombs, commanders say.

In contrast, the regular forces, which have been battling for weeks through towns and villages on the way to the city, are now stalled on the edges, facing the prospect of diving into an urban battle, according to commanders in the field.

The 16th Infantry Division met stiff resistance about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the city and has had to halt its advance and hold its positions. It did send a brigade to the eastern side of Mosul to help hold territory taken by the special forces there. South of Mosul, forces from the 9th Division along with some 10,000 members of the paramilitary federal police have stopped about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) short of the city’s boundaries to regroup and rest after the long fight to reach that point.

“We are not equipped or trained to fight inside cities. We are an armored outfit with tanks,” acknowledged a senior officer from the 9th Division, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations. “Even if we are able to advance toward the city, we need forces to hold the territory we liberate. Our men are exhausted after a six-week battle deployment.”

The IS militants are putting up resistance not seen in past major battles with the Iraqi military north and west of Baghdad. They are drawing on a vast arsenal of weapons, while fighting in a city they called home for the past two years. The militants have also dug an elaborate network of tunnels, some as long as 3,000 meters (yards), that offer cover from drones.

The battle “will require a combination of siege warfare and continuous attacks against targets identified by sophisticated intelligence, all taking place while civilians are still in the city and its surroundings,” Hertling wrote in response to questions emailed by The Associated Press. “It will take longer than any of them have predicted, and they will sustain significant casualties.”

Commanders suspect the worst may yet to come. Up to 6,000 IS fighters remain in Mosul, including as many as 1,500 foreign fighters, with French and Belgians believed to number several hundreds, according to a senior military intelligence officer in Mosul.

“Their escape from Mosul is now difficult, so they will either fight to the death or become suicide bombers,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations. IS also appears to use its own drones to gather intelligence on troop movements. An example of their information-gathering abilities came Thursday, when fighters accurately hit with several mortar rounds a tent near the airstrip outside the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul. The attack took place just minutes after the prime minister concluded a meeting there with leaders of the Shiite militias tasked with liberating Tal Afar.

Two senior militia leaders and four members of their security details were hurt, according to Jaafar al-Husseini, a militia spokesman.

November 27, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Rekindling sectarian rivalries at a sensitive time, Iraq’s parliament on Saturday voted to fully legalize state-sanctioned Shiite militias long accused of abuses against minority Sunnis, adopting a legislation that promoted them to a government force empowered to “deter” security and terror threats facing the country, like the Islamic State group.

The legislation, supported by 208 of the chamber’s 327 members, was quickly rejected by Sunni Arab politicians and lawmakers as proof of the “dictatorship” of the country’s Shiite majority and evidence of its failure to honor promises of inclusion.

“The majority does not have the right to determine the fate of everyone else,” Osama al-Nujaifi, one of Iraq’s three vice presidents and a senior Sunni politician, told reporters after the vote, which was boycotted by many Sunni lawmakers.

“There should be genuine political inclusion. This law must be revised.” Another Sunni politician, legislator Ahmed al-Masary, said the law cast doubt on the participation in the political process by all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions.

“The legislation aborts nation building,” he said, adding it would pave the way for a dangerous parallel to the military and police. A spokesman for one of the larger Shiite militias welcomed the legislation as a well-deserved victory. “Those who reject it are engaging in political bargaining,” said Jaafar al-Husseini of the Hezbollah Brigades.

“It is not the Sunnis who reject the law, it is the Sunni politicians following foreign agendas,” said Shiite lawmaker Mohammed Saadoun. The law, tabled by parliament’s largest Shiite bloc, applies to the Shiite militias fighting IS as well as the much smaller and weaker anti-IS Sunni Arab groups. Militias set up by tiny minorities, like Christians and Turkmen, to fight IS are also covered.

According to a text released by parliament, the militias have now become an “independent” force that is part of the armed forces and report to the prime minister, who is also the commander in chief. The new force would be subject to military regulations, except for age and education requirements — provisions designed to prevent the exclusion of the elderly and uneducated Iraqis who joined the militias. The militiamen would benefit from salaries and pensions identical to those of the military and police, but are required to severe all links to political parties and refrain from political activism.

The legislation came at a critical stage in Iraq’s two-year-long fight against IS, a conflict underscored by heavy sectarian tensions given that the group follows an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam and the security forces are predominantly Shiite. The Shiite-led government last month launched a massive campaign to dislodge IS from predominantly Sunni Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the last major urban center still held by the extremist group.

Through the military, the government has used the campaign to project an image of even-handedness, reaching out to the city’s residents and promising them a life free of the atrocities and excesses committed by IS. It has also excluded the Shiite militias from the battle, winning a measure of goodwill from the Sunnis. But Saturday’s legislation may stoke the simmering doubts of many Sunnis about the intentions of the government.

The Shiite militias, most of which are backed by Iran, have been bankrolled and equipped by the government since shortly after IS swept across much of northern and western Iraq two years ago. Many of them existed long before IS emerged, fighting American troops in major street battles during the U.S. military presence in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Their ranks, however, significantly swelled after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for jihad, or holy struggle, against IS in June 2014.

They now number over 100,000 men and fight with heavy weaponry, including tanks, artillery and rocket launchers. The larger militias have intelligence agencies and run their own jails. Since 2014 they have played a key role in the fight against IS, checking its advance on Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Samarra and Karbala and later driving the militants from areas to the south, northeast and north of Baghdad.

Their heavy battlefield involvement followed the collapse of security forces in the face of the 2014 IS blitz, but their role has somewhat diminished in recent months as more and more of Iraq’s military units regained their strength and chose to distance themselves from the occasionally unruly militiamen.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and rights groups have long complained that the militiamen have been involved in extrajudicial killings, abuse and the theft or destruction of property in Sunni areas. They viewed them as the Trojan Horse of Shiite, non-Arab Iran because of their close links to Tehran and their reliance on military advisers from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Many in the Sunni Arab community wanted them integrated into the military and police, a proposition long rejected by Shiite militia leaders, some of whom have on occasion spoken of their aspiration of evolving into a force akin to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or the Iranian-backed Hezbollah — both well-armed military groups with substantial political leverage and large economic interests.

Senior Shiite politician Amar al-Hakim sought to reassure Sunnis on Saturday, saying several laws to be issued by the prime minister to regulate the work of the militias would allay many of their fears. He did not elaborate, but added “The law creates a suitable climate for national unity.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi welcomed the legislation and said the “Popular Mobilization Forces” — the formal name of the militias — would cover all Iraqi sects. “We must show gratitude for the sacrifices offered by those heroic fighters, young and elderly. It is the least we can offer them,” said the statement. “The Popular Mobilization will represent and defend all Iraqis wherever they are.”

But Sunni lawmaker Mohammed al-Karbooly said the law ignored pleas by Sunni politicians for the expulsion and prosecution of Shiite militiamen accused of abuses. “The law, as is, provides them with a cover,” he said.

November 26, 2016

The reactivation of a program of secret informants in the predominantly Sunni Arab Iraqi province of Diyala has frightened residents who fear this would lead thousands of them to prisons by vengeful and deceitful informers, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported yesterday.

During the reign of former prime minister and current Vice President Nouri Al-Maliki, thousands of Iraqis were sent to prisons based on false information provided by secret informants. After an agreement with Sunni political groups and tribes, current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi agreed to stop the use of these informants.

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed cited a member of Diyala’s ministerial council as saying that the Shia militias in cooperation with the governorate’s administration “had reactivated and organised the work of secret informants.”

“The informants get funds and protection from the [Shia] militias in return for information they provide to the judiciary under what is described as support and cooperation with the security services.”

The unnamed source in Diyala added: “The [Shia] militias agreed with Diyala’s governor, Muthana Al-Tamimi, who is a leader in the militias, in order to release funds and provide protection for the informants, [using the excuse] that they would provide information about people cooperating with Daesh.”

The official said that the informants had already provided information about 150 people accused of “dealing with Daesh,” noting that the security services had already started inspection and arrest campaigns.

The use of informants has been likened to “witch hunts” whereby people with grudges inform on those with whom they have personal or business problems with, accusing them of being Daesh members or sympathizers.

Based upon such information, the Iraqi authorities then arrest these individuals, largely from the Sunni Arab community, and incarcerate them or even put them to death.

In light of this, the Tribal Council of Diyala warned against the reactivation of secret informants, saying that it would return the issue of “revenge” to the fore of Sunni Arab disenfranchisement which led to Daesh being able to find recruits who felt they had an opportunity to avenge themselves against what they deemed to be a sectarian government in Baghdad.

Sheikh Manaf Al-Majma’e told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that Diyala needed to “revive the spirit of peaceful coexistence among its people,” expressing his sadness over measures taken by the officials in the province which are “completely against our needs.”

He reiterated that the Iraqi judiciary recognized that most of those arrested over information provided by secret informants in the past were innocent, yet this has not stopped the Iraqi government from utilizing them in coordination with Iran-backed Shia militias who operate similar to organised crime outfits.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161126-return-of-secret-informants-scares-sunnis-in-iraq/.

November 24, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi troops on Thursday drove Islamic State militants from three more neighborhoods in the northern city of Mosul, pushing toward the city center in a slow, street-to-street fight that’s now in its sixth week, according to a senior Iraqi commander.

Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil of the special forces told The Associated Press that his men have retaken the neighborhoods of Amn, Qahira and Green Apartments and were expanding their foothold in the densely populated district of Zohour.

The neighborhoods are all in the eastern sector of Mosul, east of the Tigris River, where most of the fighting has taken place since the government’s campaign to liberate the city began Oct. 17. Government troops are backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against IS positions in the city.

Mosul, captured by IS in 2014, is the last major urban center still held by the Sunni extremist group in Iraq. Late Wednesday, a spokesman for one of the larger state-sanctioned Shiite militias fighting on the ground near Mosul said the militiamen have seized a road to the northwest of Mosul linking the city to Raqqa, the de facto capital of the IS group’s self-styled caliphate in neighboring Syria. The militias have been converging on Tal Afar, an IS-held town west of Mosul that had a Shiite majority before falling to the extremists in 2014.

“We have cut off Tal Afar from Mosul and we cut off Mosul from Syria,” Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, told the AP. Also Wednesday, a pre-dawn airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition struck a bridge across the Tigris River, which divides the city in two, leaving only one bridge for cars functioning in the city and disrupting IS supply lines. It was the second bridge to be struck this week, and two other bridges were destroyed by airstrikes last month.