Iraqi forces announced Saturday the ouster of Islamic State (IS) group fighters from central Tal Afar and its historic citadel, leaving them poised to fully recapture one of the jihadist group’s last urban strongholds in the country.
The advance, less than a week into an assault on the strategic city, came after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Mosul, where the IS group declared its "caliphate" in 2014.
"Units of the Counter-Terrorism Service liberated the Citadel and Basatin districts and raised the Iraqi flag on top of the citadel," operation commander General Abdulamir Yarallah said in a statement.
The CTS and federal police units had also seized three northern districts and the Al-Rabia neighbourhood west of the citadel, after retaking the district of Al-Taliaa to the south on Friday.
Clashes were ongoing on the northern outskirts and Iraqi forces were dealing with final pockets of jihadists inside the city, Yarallah said.
“The fall of the city is imminent. It’s been very swift compared to the operation that retook Mosul,” explained FRANCE 24’s Owen Holdaway, reporting from the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.
“It’s important to point out that the city itself has been largely surrounded since June. So the actual morale of the ISIS [IS group] fighters remaining -- which they estimate at around 1,000 to 1,500 fighters, many of whom have probably now been killed -- is low. That being said, there are extensive tunnel networks particularly in the edges of the northern quarters of the city which they can use to move around troops.”
Noting that the fall of the Tal Afar city centre was a major development in the military operation against the IS group [also known by the acronyms ISIL or ISIS], Holdaway noted that, “the city itself is their last major bastion in northern Iraq. It was a key supply line before it was cut off in June from Mosul to Syria. Also, a lot of the leadership of ISIL came from Tal Afar.”
Tal Afar sits on a strategic route between IS group-controlled territories in Syria and Mosul, 70 kilometres (40 miles) further east.
Snipers and booby-trapped cars
Columns of smoke could be seen rising over the city after the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition, fighting alongside government troops, seized the Al-Khadra and Al-Jazeera districts.
Abbas Radhi, a Hashed al-Shaabi fighter, said IS fighters had resisted the advance mostly with sniper fire. "There are also booby-trapped cars, mortars. But they've been defeated, God willing," he said.
Government troops and units of the Hashed al-Shaabi, backed by a US-led coalition against the jihadist group, launched the assault last Sunday after weeks of coalition and Iraqi air strikes.
Officials have said they hope to announce victory in Tal Afar by Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday set to start in Iraq on September 2.
France pledges 430 million euro reconstruction loan
The Tal Afar advance came as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Florence Parly visited Baghdad on Saturday to affirm their country's support in the fight against the IS group.
“France was present at the start of the fight against Daesh,” said Le Drian, using an Arabic acronym for the IS group. “It will also be present in the peace phase that is now beginning.”
During a meeting with Abadi, Le Drian pledged Iraq a loan of 430 million euros, a French foreign ministry source told AFP.
The funds are set to be released before the end of 2017.
The bill for the country’s reconstruction following the IS group’s assaults on northern and western Iraq is estimated at between 700 to 1,000 US billion dollars.
The recently reconquered cities must be cleared of mines and basic services, such as water, electricity, health and sanitation, need to be restored to enable return of displaced populations. Iraq has around 3.3 million displaced people out of a total population of 39 million.
Le Drian also extended Abadi an invitation from French President Emmanuel Macron to visit France.
A Shiite-majority city empties of residents
Until its takeover by IS, Tal Afar was largely populated by Shiite Turkmen, whose beliefs are anathema to the Sunni hardliners of the IS group.
Directly targeted by the jihadists, most of the city's 200,000-strong population fled.
Some members of Tal Afar's Sunni minority joined the jihadists' ranks, forming an IS contingent with a particular reputation for violence.
The International Organization for Migration said "thousands of civilians" had fled Tal Afar since the offensive began.
Those who flee through desert areas face soaring temperatures for long periods, putting them at risk of dehydration, said Viren Falcao of the Danish Refugee Council.
Officials have said the capture of the city would make it even more difficult for the jihadists to transport fighters and weapons between Iraq and Syria.
The jihadist group has lost much of the territory it controlled and thousands of its fighters have been killed since late 2014, when US and Arab allies formed an international coalition to defeat the group.
Iraq announced the "liberation" of Tikrit, 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of Baghdad, in early 2015.
Sunni-majority Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, fell in February 2016, followed by nearby Fallujah four months later.
But the group's biggest defeat was in Mosul, where some 30,000 Iraqi forces backed by US-led air support launched a vast operation in October.
Three months later, they retook the city's east and turned their attention to the west, finally declaring the whole city "liberated" on July 9.
French foreign and defence ministers in Baghdad
The jihadist group still retains territory in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, where a US-backed Kurdish-Arab coalition is fighting to drive the group from its de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.
Once Tal Afar is retaken, Baghdad is expected to launch a new offensive on Hawija, 300 kilometres north of Baghdad.
The IS group is also present in the vast western province of Anbar, where it controls several zones along the border with war-ravaged Syria, including the Al-Qaim area.
The Tal Afar advance came as the foreign and defence ministers of France visited Baghdad on Saturday to affirm their country's support in the fight against IS.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Florence Parly, who arrived in the Iraqi capital on Friday evening, are meeting with Abadi.
"As long as our common enemy has not been eradicated, France will continue to take part" in the campaign, said Parly, whose country's forces have carried out air and artillery strikes in support of Iraqi operations.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2017-08-26