Iraqi fighters retake historic city from ISIS

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi says victory is nigh in Tal Afar, but Islamic State militants entrenched in the nearby town of Al-'Ayadiya are putting up a fierce last stand.
Smoke billowing from parts of the town of al-'Ayadiya, north of Tal Afar, as Iraqi forces advance during the ongoing operation to retake the area from ISIS on Monday.
Smoke billowing from parts of the town of al-'Ayadiya, north of Tal Afar, as Iraqi forces advance during the ongoing operation to retake the area from ISIS on Monday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

They're not declaring victory in Tal Afar until they also take town of al-'Ayadiya 11km away

TAL AFAR • Seizing the city of Tal Afar district by district, Iraqi fighters would take down the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) black flags and hang them upside-down as they took "victory selfies".

Of all the areas the fighters reclaimed, it was the historic heart of Tal Afar and its Ottoman-era citadel that was the high point.

Once an integral part of the Assyrian empire, Tal Afar's history goes back thousands of years and the city is dominated by the citadel, which was damaged in 2014 when ISIS blew up some of its walls.

Following the recapture last month of Mosul, Tal Afar became the next target of the US-backed war on ISIS, which had declared its "caliphate" over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. The citadel overlooking Tal Afar "is a pillar of civilisation, it's a major historical monument for all the Iraqi and Arab people", says Mr Abdel Hamid al-Attar, a 49-year-old fighter with the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary units that are fighting alongside government forces.

During their three-year occupation of Tal Afar, the extremist ISIS militants turned the citadel into a prison where they chained men and women whose behaviour they considered "sinful".

"I was shocked and sad when I saw the damage caused by ISIS," Mr Abdel Hamid said.

Of all the areas the fighters reclaimed, it was the historic heart of Tal Afar and its Ottoman-era citadel that was the high point... During their three-year occupation of Tal Afar, the extremist ISIS militants turned the citadel into a prison where they chained men and women whose behaviour they considered "sinful".

Not far from the citadel stands Tal Afar's grand mosque, its minaret damaged during the fighting. Halfway up, Hashed fighters have hoisted the green banner of one of their units, the Abbas Brigade.

The offensive last week was preceded by intensive air strikes on ISIS targets and huge craters can be seen around the city, where electricity poles have been uprooted, and homes and shops destroyed.

Except for the fighters, there is not a soul around; most of the city's 200,000 residents were long gone before the offensive was launched.

But ISIS graffiti is everywhere, with "Property of the Islamic State" or "God is greatest" scrawled on walls and building facades.

Iraqi forces are holding back from declaring victory in Tal Afar until they also take the small town of al-'Ayadiya, 11km north-west.

The Iraqis said on Monday they were facing tough resistance from ISIS fighters driven out of the city to al-'Ayadiya, where they had "nothing to lose" by fighting to the end.

Up to 2,000 battle-hardened militants were believed to be defending Tal Afar against around 50,000 government troops last week. It was unclear how many are left in al-'Ayadiya.

"Where are they? I don't see any of them here," said government offensive fighter Abu Abbas, who hails from southern Iraq.

The city's dramatic and rapid collapse after just eight days of fighting lent support to Iraqi military reports that the militants lack sturdy command and control structures west of Mosul.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2017, with the headline 'Iraqi fighters retake historic city from ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe