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Iraqi forces on Friday entered west Mosul neighbourhoods, a key stronghold in the shrinking"caliphate" of the Islamic State group, which replied with deadly suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria.
As the war on the world's most violent jihadist group escalated, Iraqi warplanes struck IS militants inside neighbouring Syria, a first that Damascus said was coordinated between the two governments.
In yet another key landmark in the bloody offensive to retake Mosul, the largest city ever held by the jihadists, elite Iraqi forces punched into districts of the west bank for the first time.
The interior ministry's elite Rapid Response force, which retook Mosul airport on Thursday, kept its momentum and broke into the adjacent Jawsaq neighbourhood.
They were met by mortar fire and snipers but also by ululating women celebrating the end of more than two and half years of tyrannic rule and by men begging for cigarettes.
"I don't have any left, I swear, I don't have any left," said one government fighter as his convoy advanced slowly down the street.
The elite Counter-Terrorism Service that did most of the fighting in the four-month-old Mosul offensive entered a neighbourhood further west along the city's southern limits."We entered the outer edge of Al Maamun neighbourhood," said Staff Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, a top CTS commander.
"IS is using vehicle bombs -- this morning three were destroyed. We have some injuries from the weaponised drones and mortars," he told AFP just south of Mosul.
It was not immediately clear whether Iraqi forces would keep venturing deeper into west Mosul or consolidate their positions on the edges ahead of dangerous operations towards the centre.
The fight"has moved very fast so far but we'll see what happens in the next stage. It might be more difficult," Saadi admitted.
The narrow streets of the Old City, home to the mosque where Abu Bakr al Baghdadi made his only public appearance as IS leader and proclaimed the"caliphate" in July 2014, could turn into a death trap. They will be impassable for some military vehicles, forcing Iraqi forces to go on dismounted raids. IS has covered some streets with roofs to block aerial surveillance.
The loss of west Mosul would be a death blow to the jihadists' claim they are running a"state" and leave the city of Raqqa in neighbouring Syria as the only major urban centre they still control.
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