PHOTO: Iraqi Special Operations Forces in eastern Mosul, January 10, 2017 (Reuters)

After stalling for weeks, the Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq’s second city Mosul announced a breakthrough on Wednesday, with the capture of all districts east of the Euphrates River.

Is this a key point on the path to victory over ISIS, which has held Mosul since June 2014? Stephen Kalin of Reuters, who has covered the offensive from the frontline since it began in october, speaks with Musings on Iraq:

What changes were made to allow the Iraqi forces to make such dramatic progress across east Mosul since the campaign was restarted at the end of December?

According to my military sources, during a pause to refit and resupply in December, senior Iraqi commanders from the different branches held a conference to share lessons learned and agreed to speak regularly (every few days) to coordinate their movements. Some useful lessons included how to better defend against Islaimc State suicide car bombs, one of the bigger causes of Iraqi Security Forces casualties. We’ve seen the troops at the frontlines doing a much better job now of blocking off side streets so VBIEDs can’t take them by surprise – something they were not doing nearly enough of in November.

IS also seems to have slowly run through its supply of up-armoured VBIEDs, increasingly resorting to unarmoured ones that are easier to disable. Coordination between the fronts also improved. Whereas before the overall commander would check in with each front, now all the fronts are talking to each other regularly and planning how best to work together. We’ve seen many such liaison meetings near the frontlines in recent weeks. That may not be very exciting, but it seems to have been critical.

The rapid response division took over the lead in the southeast from the 9th army which took a hard hit at Salam hospital from the IS counter-attack. Backed by a large number of federal police, they made quick gains in the southeast. [The Iraqi elite counter-terrorism unit] CTS moved to take areas on its flanks to connect with rapid response and army in the north, which made it easier to focus on forward movement. Then hitting IS from multiple directions stretched them thin. It really felt like momentum began to snowball in the ISF’s favor after a week of the new push.

The Islamic State seems to be breaking in east Mosul. What signs did you see that their defenses were falling apart, and what do you think that means for the fight in west Mosul?

Cutting the bridges seems to have significantly hurt their ability to resupply and redeploy fighters. They lost much of their depth of operation, which would challenge any force.

It’s hard to say what this means for the west. Most commanders I’ve spoken to say they expect the west to be much harder because the fighters there are more hardline, it’s the core of their operations, the streets are narrower and the government buildings are so symbolic that they will put up a big fight. The river is also a terrain challenge and we have yet to see how the ISF will deal with that, though they managed a similar situation in Ramadi in 2015. I think the same questions remain of west Mosul that we had about the east: will IS stand and fight or run/melt into the population? Will there be a local uprising? Will there be a humanitarian crisis? This could end sooner than most of us expect or it could drag on for many months.

What’s life like for the people in Mosul in the liberated areas?

Strangely normal. A few minutes from the frontlines, shops are open, traffic winds through the streets, people are cleaning up their shops and homes. Boys play football, some even sporting shorts that were forbidden under IS. But there is almost no work, very little aid is reaching the eastern districts and of course people are traumatized by the war and 2-1/2 years of IS rule. There’s only well water and generator electricity, there’s destruction on nearly every block and the sounds of artillery and aircraft overhead are sometimes nonstop. I was in a family’s home in east Mosul last week watching on al-Mousaliya TV as districts just a few kilometers away were being retaken. One of the women got a phone call that the Iraqi Security Forces had reached her brother’s home and tears immediately flowed down her face. It was a pretty surreal moment and quite humbling to witness.

What has the fighting done to the city’s buildings and infrastructure?

The ISF and the coalition say they are taking lots of care to preserve buildings and infrastructure, and I think that’s true because they could easily be using heavier ordnance in order to move faster. As a result, Mosul does not look like Ramadi, where some entire blocks are leveled and it was hard to find a single block without some heavy destruction. Partly also IS has not rigged Mosul houses the way they did in Ramadi because they’ve been living here for 2-1/2 years so it just wouldn’t have been practical for them to do so. That said, electricity is out, water is out, roads are a mess, many homes and government buildings are totaled. There is a lot of destruction in Mosul and it will take a long time and a lot of money to rebuild.