Iraqi forces launch new assault on one of ISIS’s last strongholds

Members of the Iraqi Shia militia Imam Ali Brigades, part of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces, rest during a live ammunition drill in Najaf, southern Iraq, on August 14. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces will participate in the battle to reclaim Tal Afar despite calls to prevent Shia militias from participating. (Khider Abbas/EPA)

Iraqi ground forces launched an assault on the town of Tal Afar early on Sunday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on state television, one of the last territories in the country controlled by Islamic State militants. .

The attempt to recapture Tal Afar comes a month after Iraqi forces, backed by US-led airstrikes, declared victory in Mosul after a grueling nine-month battle that took its toll on Iraqi troops and the hundreds of thousands of civilians who remained in the city during the fighting.

Tal Afar, although much smaller than Mosul, is also expected to be an uphill battle: Iraqi officials estimate around 1,000 Islamic State militants remain in the city and will fight to the death, with little opportunity to escape. Tal Afar, about 70km west of Mosul, was surrounded in late 2016 as part of an effort by Iraqi forces to cut off Islamic State supply routes between the Syrian border and the capital Mosul. de facto of the group in Iraq.

“I say to Daesh, you have no choice but to surrender or die,” Adabi said in a pre-dawn televised address, dressed in his favorite black military fatigues and using the Arabic acronym for The Islamic State.

This will be the first test of the Iraqi military, especially the elite US-trained counterterrorism service, after suffering heavy casualties in the battle for Mosul. The pace of the battle will likely determine when Iraq launches further campaigns to expel Islamic State fighters from at least two other major cities it still controls.

The town, about 60 km east of the Syrian border, has both strategic and administrative importance for the Islamic State. It was one of the first crossing points into Iraq for foreign fighters streaming into the country from Syria, and later became an important hub for supplies between the militants’ two largest holdings, Raqqa in Syria. and Mosul.

It was also the hometown of a number of senior Iraqi Islamic State operatives. Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tal Afar was one of the first places in the country to suffer a deadly wave of sectarian killings and hosted an active al-Qaeda insurgency.

Before Islamic State militants claimed it in June 2014, Tal Afar was an ethnically diverse city where Shiites and Sunnis lived. The Islamic State drove out or massacred the city’s Shia population, drawing vows of revenge from the predominantly Shia militias that had been tasked with encircling Tal Afar in November as the battle for Mosul began.

The Battle of Tal Afar will be closely watched by regional powers, given its strategic location near the border with Syria and Turkey. Ahead of Sunday’s attempted recapture of the city, there had been questions about which Iraqi forces would lead the assault. Turkey, along with the United States, was eager for Abadi to oust the powerful Iran-backed Shia militias surrounding the city, as Iran pushed for a major role for the militias.

Adabi remained vague on the role of the militias, which fall under nominal state authority, saying Sunday that the Iraqi army, counterterrorism forces and federal police would lead the fight, backed by the militias.

Salim reported from Baghdad.

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