Iraq begins battle to retake ISIS stronghold Tal Afar

Iraqi armoured units heading for Tal Afar. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said paramilitary forces would help army, police and counter-terrorism units retake the northern city.
Iraqi armoured units heading for Tal Afar. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said paramilitary forces would help army, police and counter-terrorism units retake the northern city.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

City and surrounding area one of last pockets of ISIS-held territory in Iraq after victory in Mosul

BAGHDAD • Iraqi forces have launched an assault to retake the northern city of Tal Afar from terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after ousting the militants from Mosul last month.

Tal Afar lies around 70km west of second city Mosul, which Iraqi forces recaptured early last month in a major blow to the hardliners.

About 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in the city, according to United States and Iraqi military commanders. They are expected to put up a tough fight, even though intelligence from inside the city indicates they have been exhausted by months of combat, aerial bombardments and by the lack of fresh supplies.

In a televised speech early yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, dressed in military uniform and standing in front of an Iraqi flag and map of the country, announced "the start of an operation to free Tal Afar".

"I am saying to Daesh that there's no choice other than to leave or be killed," he said, using an alternative name for ISIS. "We have won all our battles and Daesh has always lost," he said, telling his troops: "The entire world is with you."

Several hours after the start of the battle, the federal police said it had retaken the village of Al-Abra al-Sghira, west of Tal Afar.

SURRENDER OR DIE

I am saying to Daesh (ISIS) that there's no choice other than to leave or be killed. We have won all our battles and Daesh has always lost.

IRAQI PM HAIDER AL-ABADI, in a televised speech early yesterday, announcing "the start of an operation to free Tal Afar".

ISIS fighters in June 2014 overran Tal Afar, a Shi'ite enclave in the predominantly Sunni province of Nineveh, on the road between Mosul and Syria. At the time, it had a population of around 200,000. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that between 10,000 and 40,000 people are left in Tal Afar and surrounding villages.

The authorities have accused the approximately 1,000 militants in the city of using civilians as human shields during Iraqi and US-led coalition air strikes earlier last week in preparation for the ground assault.

Mr Abadi said that Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces would help army, police and counter-terrorism units retake Tal Afar.

The umbrella organisation, which is dominated by Iran-backed Shi'ite militia, has already been fighting to retake a number of other Iraqi cities from ISIS.

Even before Mr Abadi's announcement, Iraqi planes had dropped leaflets to residents in Tal Afar and its surroundings, the Hashed said in a statement.

The authorities said they had set up a radio station to keep residents informed of developments.

ISIS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces have since regained much of the territory.

Once Tal Afar is retaken, the Iraqi authorities intend to turn their sights south to launch a fight to retake militant-held Hawijah, in the province of Kirkuk, 300km north- west of Baghdad.

Militants still hold areas in Anbar, a western province that borders Syria and faces major security challenges.

ISIS has also suffered major setbacks in Syria, where US-backed fighters have retaken around half of its de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.

Russia-supported Syrian troops have almost entirely encircled ISIS in Syria's central desert region, and the militants are facing twin assaults from the Lebanese army and Shi'ite movement Hizbollah on the Lebanon-Syrian border.

Residents who left Tal Afar last week told Reuters the militants looked exhausted. "(Fighters) have been using tunnels to move from place to place to avoid air strikes," said 60-year-old Haj Mahmoud, a retired teacher. "Their faces looked desperate and broken."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Iraq begins battle to retake ISIS stronghold Tal Afar'. Print Edition | Subscribe