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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Iraqi air forces start offensive to retake Tal Afar from ISIL

Ground attacks are expected to begin within days 

Members of Iraqi Shiite militia Imam Ali Brigades,part of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces, take a break rest during a live ammunition training exercise in Najaf city, southern Iraq, on August 14, 2017.  Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces will be engaged in the battle to take Tal Afar from ISIL. Khider Abbas / EPA
Members of Iraqi Shiite militia Imam Ali Brigades,part of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces, take a break rest during a live ammunition training exercise in Najaf city, southern Iraq, on August 14, 2017. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces will be engaged in the battle to take Tal Afar from ISIL. Khider Abbas / EPA

Iraqi air forces began bombing Tal Afar on Tuesday in preparation for a ground assault as the Pentagon confirmed the US-led coalition is supporting the Iraqi government's push to drive ISIL out of the city, despite Turkey's objections.

“Ground attacks will begin when the air campaign is over,” said Mohammed Al Khodari, the defence ministry’s spokesman on Baghdad- based Al Sumariya TV channel.

That air campaign will be carried out with American help, the Pentagon confirmed to The National.

The anti-ISIL coaltion led by the United States "will support the government of Iraq and its forces in the plan to liberate Tal Afar and other areas of Iraq from ISIL control," the spokesman said.

Ground forces have begun massing around Tal Afar, said Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool. "Preparations are under way, there are strikes aimed at wearing them down and keeping them busy, targeting their command and control centres, their depots... these strikes have been going on for some time," he said.

Despite the air activity, the defence ministry insisted the battle to liberate Tal Afar had not yet begun. "We are awaiting orders from the commander in chief of the armed forces to announce zero hour,” the ministry said on Twitter.

Plans to retake Tal Afar were announced on Monday by federal police chief Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, who said "armoured and elite units" were headed for the town.The unspecified number of units were "regrouping in combat positions in preparation for the next battle." he said.

Located approximately 60 kilometres from Mosul and Iraq’s borders with Turkey and Syria, 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 last week as security forces began liberating surrounding areas.

The Tal Afar battle holds critical strategic importance for the United States, according to Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.

“Tal Afar is important because ISIL could project power from the city into Mosul (again) and destabilize it,” he said. It was for that reason that “the US chose to go after Tal Afar first, rather than other ISIL strongholds, like Hawija,” Mr Stein said.

The push into the Iraqi city with US support ignores Turkey's forceful objections over the participation of Shiite militias in the offensive.

The majority of the population of Tal Afar - whether Shiite or Sunni - is ethnically Turkmen. While Tal Afar has been surrounded by Shiite militias since the beginning of the battle to retake Mosul, Ankara has long opposed involving them in the liberation of the town and its environs on the grounds that ISIL is likely to inflict terrible reprisals on the Turkmen population and thus ignite further sectarian divisions.

Turkey, 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.

“Turkey has long-sought to play a role in Tal Afar, largely through the support of Sunni Turkmen factions.” Mr Stein said. “This support is used as a hedge against the influence of Shiite ethnic militias, which include Arab and Turkmens, and for Ankara to be able to project power along the road connecting Sinjar and Tal Afar to Mosul. They have resorted to threats to try and compel the United States to do something (in their favor), but it isn’t working.”

Iraqi authorities have long made it known that Tal Afar would be the next target in the war against the extremists who swept through swathes of Iraq and Syria three years ago.

“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 cities like Raqqa and Deir Ez Zour in Syria, to Iraq” said Mohamed Hineidi, a senior analyst at the Delma Institute. “ISIL will put up a fight in order to maintain a presence in Iraq - giving it the chance of conducting attacks and bombings in Baghdad, and other areas.”

The Iraqi prime minister, Haidar Al Abadi confirmed Hashd Al Shaabi- the Shiite popular mobilization unit, “will be actively engaged in the battle”.

The militias have already began carrying out military operations to the east of Tal Afar.

"Hashed al-Shaabi commanders met with army and police commanders on Saturday to decide on the plan to free Tal Afar," said the militias spokesman Ahmed Al Assadi.ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate effectively collapsed last month, when US-backed Iraqi forces completed the recapture of Mosul, the militants' capital in northern Iraq, after a nine-month campaign.

“Mosul is Iraq's second largest city - its significance and symbolism to ISIL dwarfs that of Tal Afar. The fighting in Tal Afar, however, will not be different tactically, but with Mosul, there was little chance of ISIL withdrawing, due to Mosul's significance” said Mr Hineidi.

“With Tal Afar however, the group might withdraw to reinforce cities Deir Ez Zour in Syria - which are large urban centers”.

Mr Al Abadi is expected to announce the launch of the ground assault but there are no indications on when it will start.