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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Iraq begins ground attacks on ISIL in Tal Afar 

Commander of operations announce liberation of villages in east, south-west and north-west of the city

Fighters from the Hashed Al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitaries advance towards the city of Tal Afar, the main remaining stronghold of ISIL on August 20, 2017, after the government announced the beginning of an operation to retake the city.Ahmad Al Rubaye/AFP Photo
Fighters from the Hashed Al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitaries advance towards the city of Tal Afar, the main remaining stronghold of ISIL on August 20, 2017, after the government announced the beginning of an operation to retake the city.Ahmad Al Rubaye/AFP Photo

Iraqi ground forces backed by the US on Sunday began an offensive to recapture Tal Afar, one of the last areas of the country held by ISIL.

Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi announced the launch of the operation in televised speech and warned that ISIL fighters had a choice between “surrender or die”.

"We have won all our battles, and ISIL have always lost," he said, telling the country's troops that "the entire world is with you".

By early afternoon, Lieutenant General Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah, commander of the operation, said the forces had recaptured villages in the east, south-west and northwest of the city.

Tal Afar and the surrounding area is one of the last pockets of ISIL held territory in Iraq after victory was declared in July in Mosul.

US army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend the commander of US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, welcomed the latest offensive.

“The operation to liberate Tal Afar is another important fight that must be won to ensure the country and its citizens are finally free of ISIL," said Gen Townsend. "The Coalition is strong, and fully committed to supporting our Iraqi partners until ISIL is defeated and the Iraqi people are free."

Forces participating in the battle include all branches of the Iraqi Security Forces - the 9th, 15th and 16th Iraqi Army Divisions, the Counter Terrorism Service, the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division and the local police.

The Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi, are also involved in the battle in a more prominent role than previous offensives.

Tal Afar has been surrounded by the militias since the start of the battle to retake Mosul and Turkey has long opposed involving them in the liberation of the town on the grounds that ISIL is likely to inflict terrible reprisals on the Turkmen population and thus ignite further sectarian divisions.

Ankara, along with some elements in the Iraqi government, have raised the same concerns about the Shiite militias, who have been accused of torture and killings in Sunni-majority cities.

The geographical location of the town is also of strategic interest to ISIL, located approximately 60 kilometres from Mosul and Iraq’s borders with Turkey and Syria.

"Tal Afar is a strategic town, it is the last town before the Syrian border, and was used as a transit route for ISIL from city's like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in Syria, to Iraq" said Mr Mohamed Henedi, a senior analyst at The Delma Institute.

It's vital to combat ISIL in Iraq as their destruction "will significantly reduce the terror group's ability to regroup in areas in or around Mosul, or to launch attacks across many parts of northern Iraq." said Mr Henedi.

"As long as ISIL is present in Tal Afar, its ability to transfer men, weapons, and supplies to and from Syria is unhindered - and that is important for ISIS should it wish to pose a credible threat to Iraq".

Tal Afar has been under ISIL control since mid-2014 and the early stages of the operation to retake the city have been underway since the beginning of August.

Along with Tal Afar, ISIL fighters are still fully in control of the town of Hawija west of Kirkuk, as well as the towns of Qaim, Rawa and Ana in western Iraq near the Syrian border.

“The group will put up a fight in order to maintain a presence in Iraq” said Mr Henedi.

Victory in the town, where the majority of the population — both Shiite and Sunni — are ethnically Turkmen, would mean the loss of one of its most important strongholds for ISIL.

“The city is multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian. We hope that the people of Tal Afar can return to their pre-ISIL life,” said Dr Abbas Kadhim, senior foreign policy fellow at the Wilson Centre, a Washington-based think tank.

Displacement from the town has already begun, thousands of civilians are expected to flee from Tal Afar and surrounding communities during the operation said Lise Grande, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.

Approximately 10,000-50,000 civilians remain in and around Tal Afar, while more than 30,000 people have already fled the district.

“Families are trekking for 10 to 20 hours in extreme heat to reach mustering points. They are arriving exhausted and dehydrated."

Ms Grande said “We don’t know how many civilians are still in the areas where fighting is occurring, but we are preparing for thousands more to flee in coming days and weeks. Conditions are very tough in the city. Food and water are running out, and people lack the basic necessities to survive.”