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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

ISIL stronghold Tal Afar about to fall, says Iraqi military

Militants' collapse within a week of government offensive supports claims of a collapse in command structure

Smoke rises during clashes between a joint force of Iraqi army and Hashed Al Shaabi fighters against ISIL militants in Tal Afar on August 26, 2017. Thaier Al Sudani / Reuters
Smoke rises during clashes between a joint force of Iraqi army and Hashed Al Shaabi fighters against ISIL militants in Tal Afar on August 26, 2017. Thaier Al Sudani / Reuters

Iraqi forces raised the national flag in the heart of Tal Afar on Saturday and said they were poised to take full control of the ISIL stronghold after a week-long offensive.

"Tal Afar city is about to fall completely into the hands of our forces, only five per cent remains" under ISIL control, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

The Iraqi joint operations command said the elite Counter-Terrorism Service forces had liberated the heart of the city "and raised the national flag on top of the citadel building".

The CTS and federal police units 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.

On Saturday, they battled ISIL fighters around Al Ayadieh, 15 kilometres north of Tal Afar and strategically located on the road between the city and the Syrian border, said operation commander Gen Abdulamir Yarallah.

A map published by the joint operations command showed all of Tal Afar under army control barring one district on the north-east side where fighting was continuing.

"God willing, the remaining part will be liberated soon," Iraqi foreign minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari said earlier at a news conference with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and French defence minister Florence Parly in Baghdad.

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 fighter, said ISIL had resisted the advance mostly with sniper fire. "There are also booby-trapped cars, mortars. But they've been defeated, God willing," he said.

The quick collapse of ISIL in the city would confirm Iraqi military reports that the militants lack command and control structures west of Mosul, which was retaken by Iraqi forces in July after nine months of fighting.

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The offensive on Tal Afar was launched last Sunday after weeks of coalition and Iraqi air strikes. The city lies on the supply route between Syria and Mosul, where ISIL declared its self-proclaimed caliphate over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, and was one of the last remaining urban areas held by ISIL in Iraq.

Mosul's collapse effectively marked the end of ISIL's "caliphate", but the group remains in control of territory on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border, and of Hawija, a city between Mosul and Baghdad that Iraqi officials said would be the next target.

Tal Afar had a pre-war population of about 200,000 that was reduced to between 10,000 and 20,000 at the time the offensive was launched, according to US military estimates.

Tens of thousands of people are believed to have fled in the weeks before the battle started. Those remaining were threatened with death by the militants, according to aid organisations and residents who managed to leave.

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