Iraqi forces retake most of Tal Afar from ISIS in 8 days

The Iraqi military says it has almost entirely recaptured Tal Afar from Islamic State in a battle that has taken just one week.
Hashed al-Shaabi troops flashing the victory gesture as they hold upside down an ISIS banner during the advance in Tal Afar on Saturday.
Hashed al-Shaabi troops flashing the victory gesture as they hold upside down an ISIS banner during the advance in Tal Afar on Saturday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Quick defeat will deprive militants of major hub of movement between Iraq and Syria

BAGHDAD/ERBIL • Iraqi forces have retaken almost all of Tal Afar, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) stronghold in the country's north-west, the Iraqi military said yesterday.

After just eight days of fighting, all 29 neighbourhoods in Tal Afar city had been recaptured from the militant group, the military said in a statement yesterday.

Pro-government fighters could already be seen celebrating, flashing victory signs as their tanks rolled through the streets, waving Iraqi flags and taking down black ISIS banners from buildings and lamp posts.

However, fighting was ongoing in Al-Ayadiya, a small area 11km north-west of the city, where militants who fled the district's city centre were hiding out, Iraqi military spokesman Yahya Rasool said.

Iraqi forces were waiting to retake the area before declaring complete victory in the offensive, he said.

Tal Afar was the latest objective in the US-backed war on the Islamist group following the recapture in July of Mosul, where ISIS declared its self-proclaimed "caliphate" over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

The offensive on Tal Afar, which lies on the supply route between Syria and the former ISIS stronghold of Mosul, started on Aug 20.

The offensive on Tal Afar, which lies on the supply route between Syria and the former ISIS stronghold of Mosul, started on Aug 20. Such a quick collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the city, which has been a breeding ground for Islamist groups, would confirm Iraqi military reports that the militants lack command and control structures west of Mosul.

Up to 2,000 militants were believed to be defending the city against around 50,000 attackers, according to Iraqi and western military sources.

Such a quick collapse of ISIS in the city, which has been a breeding ground for Islamist groups, would confirm Iraqi military reports that the militants lack command and control structures west of Mosul.

The loss of Tal Afar, in northern Iraq between Mosul and the Syrian border, will also deprive ISIS of what was once a significant hub for movement between the Syrian and Iraqi components of the self-styled "caliphate".

Residents who fled Tal Afar days before the start of the offensive told Reuters that the militants looked "exhausted" and "depleted".

Tens of thousands of people are believed to have fled in the weeks before the battle started.

Remaining civilians were threatened with death by the militants, according to aid organisations and residents who managed to leave.

Tal Afar has experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has produced some of ISIS' most senior commanders.

On Saturday, Iraqi forces reached Tal Afar's Ottoman-era citadel and took control of the city centre.

Government troops and units of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition launched the assault last Sunday after weeks of coalition and Iraqi air strikes.

Progress in Tal Afar has been far more rapid than in Mosul, which fell to Iraqi forces only after a gruelling nine-month battle.

Officials have said they hope to announce victory by Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday set to start in Iraq on Sept 2.

The next target in the area was the nearby town of Al-Ayadiya, strategically located on the road between the city and the Syrian border.

In the whole Tal Afar region, "1,155 sq km of 1,655 sq km, or 70 per cent of the area, have been taken", the joint operations command said late on Saturday.

Pro-government forces faced an obstacle course of roads blocked with earth embankments and strategically parked trucks, as well as sniper fire and mortar-shelling during the battle for Tal Afar.

Troops also said they discovered a network of underground tunnels used by ISIS to launch attacks behind lines of already conquered territory, or to escape.

Once Tal Afar is retaken, Baghdad is expected to launch a new offensive on Hawija, about 300km north of the Iraqi capital.

The coalition has announced strikes near Hawija in recent days, including two that killed ISIS fighters and destroyed a command post.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'Iraqi forces retake most of Tal Afar from ISIS in 8 days'. Print Edition | Subscribe