Iraq declares victory over ISIS in Tal Afar city

Fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units), backing the Iraqi forces, pose with the Iraqi flag from Tal Afar's Ottoman-era historic citadel on Aug 27, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

ISTANBUL (NYTIMES) - Another city in Iraq has slipped the grasp of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the extremist group that three years ago controlled a vast caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria that threatened to rewrite Middle Eastern borders drawn after World War I.

Now the group is on its back foot with its latest loss, the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq declared liberated on Thursday (Aug 31).

The relatively quick victory in Tal Afar, after an 11-day battle by Iraqi forces backed by US air power, comes on the heels of the grueling and bloody nine-month fight for Mosul, the largest Iraqi city the ISIS ever controlled.

The mounting losses sustained by the group suggest that its days of administering territory are waning. Iraqi forces continue to push west, toward the Syrian border, while in Syria, US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters press their assault on Raqqa, the ISIS de facto capital.

Still, the fight is likely to go on for months. The ISIS still controls large parts of Syria and Iraq and has proved resilient despite previous reports of its decline. The Iraqi military's next target, the city of Hawija, is likely to be more complicated.

Even as Iraq's national television station broadcast the announcement of the liberation of Tal Afar, the plume of smoke from an airstrike could be seen in the area. And in Ayadiya, a nearby village where some ISIS fighters put up a last stand, fighting continued into the night Thursday.

With each military victory against the ISIS comes the realisation that Iraq is far from being at peace. As Iraqi security forces were mopping up in Tal Afar on Monday, an ISIS car bomb struck a vegetable market in Baghdad, killing a dozen people and underscoring the group's power as an insurgency, even with its territorial claims diminishing.

Tal Afar, while smaller than other cities the terrorist group had seized, had taken on outsize importance. The hometown of many ISIS leaders, it has long been a stronghold of extremist views, and it was among the first Iraqi cities to fall to the rebels when they began their sweep across northern Iraq in 2014.

Iraqi troops approached from the south, along highways of fine sand that turned into clouds of red dust under the weight of speeding Humvees. Along the way were ghostlike villages with doors left flung open. A water tank painted with the ISIS flag was pitched forward, shredded by an airstrike.

But the speed of the fall of Tal Afar may be a singular event rather than a harbinger of future battles.

Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi, a top commander in Iraq's counter-terrorism forces, said the victory had come quickly largely because, in contrast to Mosul, there were few civilians left in Tal Afar, allowing the Iraqi security forces to bring more destructive firepower to bear.

The city had also been cut off for months and surrounded by pro-government militias, whose fighters moved on the city last fall as the campaign for Mosul began.

"Tal Afar was trapped for months, and all of the supplies coming from ISIS in Syria toward Tal Afar were cut off," said Gen. Yahya Rasool, an Iraqi military spokesman, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.

There were also reports that the military struck a deal allowing ISIS fighters to flee, another possible reason for the quick victory. Aridhi said that many ISIS fighters had escaped, but not because of any pact with the security forces.

But Maj. Gen. Najim al-Jobori, the Iraqi commander officer who oversaw the battle, said, "There was an agreement."

He did not elaborate on the details but said that significant numbers of fighters were able to slip through the Iraqi army's security cordon. Many turned themselves in to Kurdish forces, choosing imprisonment rather than certain death at the hands of the Iraqis, while others fled to Turkey and Syria, he said.

A senior Kurdish commander said that 500 ISIS fighters turned themselves in to the Kurdish peshmerga militia over three days this week.

Whether there was a formal agreement, it appeared that the ISIS had chosen to make a tactical retreat rather than defend Tal Afar to the death.

The military's next stop, Hawija, could prove more difficult. Hawija borders Kurdish-controlled territory, making cooperation between Iraqi and Kurdish forces essential. But the Kurds are planning to hold a referendum this month on independence, aimed at converting the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq into a separate state.

Baghdad opposes the referendum, and officials have said that the military planning for Hawija could be delayed because of talks about the involvement of Kurdish forces in the battle.

Beyond Hawija, the ISIS still controls the western deserts of Anbar province, including the town of al-Qaim, near the Syrian border; and half of the city of Shirqat, in Salahuddin province, as well as a large amount of territory in eastern Syria.

The fight for Tal Afar involved a constellation of Iraqi forces, including elite special forces, the Iraqi army, federal police officers and Shiite militias with ties to Iran, backed by US air power.

Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the top US military commander in Iraq, said in a statement Thursday that with the "historic liberation of Mosul and now a swift and decisive victory in Tal Afar," the Iraqi security forces had "shown, once again, they are an increasingly capable force that can protect the Iraqi people, defeat ISIS within Iraq and secure the country's borders."

"This is yet another significant achievement for the Iraqi security forces and the government and the people of Iraq," he added.

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