By Ammar Karim
Baghdad (AFP) Aug 31, 2017
Iraq declared on Thursday that its forces had retaken the northern city of Tal Afar and the surrounding region, in another major victory over Islamic State group jihadists.
IS, which seized nearly a third of Iraq in 2014 in a humiliating defeat for the army and police, now controls barely 10 percent of the country, according to the US-led international coalition ranged against the jihadists.
The fall of Tal Afar, located in the northern province of Nineveh, deprives IS of what was once a key supply hub between its territory in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
After a 12-day battle by Iraqi forces backed by coalition air strikes and Shiite paramilitary fighters, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Tal Afar had "regained its place in the national territory".
He vowed to liberate "every inch of Iraqi territory" from the group.
"We say to the criminals of IS: wherever you are, we're coming to liberate it and you have no choice but to die or surrender," Abadi said.
The full recapture of Nineveh province comes weeks after Iraqi forces ousted the jihadists from the provincial capital Mosul, three years after the jihadists declared a self-styled "caliphate" straddling Iraq and war-torn Syria.
As promised by Iraqi officials, the victory also comes in time for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, which starts on Friday for Iraqi Sunnis and on Saturday for Shiites.
Andrew A. Croft, deputy commander of the coalition, said the speed with which Tal Afar and surrounding areas were retaken was a "positive sign".
It showed "the Iraqi forces' abilities against IS in Iraq. They have proven that the (coalition's) strategy is working," he said.
- 'Stunning victory' -
IS has lost much of the territory it controlled in the two countries and thousands of its fighters have been killed since late 2014, when the coalition was set up to defeat the group.
But the jihadist group, which is also known as ISIS, continues to claim attacks in the Middle East and Europe.
In a statement, the coalition against IS congratulated Abadi and the Iraqi security forces "on their stunning victory in Tal Afar" and Nineveh province.
But it cautioned that "dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts so they do not threaten the security of Tal Afar in the future."
Croft said Iraqi forces had killed between 600 and 700 IS fighters during the battle for Tal Afar while around 100 more had surrendered.
IS fighters in Iraq now control only the town of Hawija around 300 kilometres (185 miles) north of Baghdad, as well as several areas in the vast western desert province of Anbar along the border with Syria.
- Shiite enclave -
IS jihadists overran Tal Afar, a Shiite enclave in the predominantly Sunni province, in June 2014.
The city lies around 450 kilometres (240 miles) northwest of the capital Baghdad and about 70 kilometres (40 miles) west of Mosul, Iraq's second city.
At the time Tal Afar had a population of around 200,000, but it was unclear how many remained when the battle to recapture the city was launched on August 20.
Officials have said the swift capture of Tal Afar would make it even more difficult for the jihadists to transport fighters and weapons between Iraq and Syria.
Authorities had accused the approximately 1,000 jihadists believed to be in the city when the operation was launched of using civilians as human shields during Iraqi and coalition air strikes.
Progress in Tal Afar was far more rapid than in Mosul, Iraq's second city which fell only after a gruelling nine-month battle that began in October 2016.
IS has also suffered major losses in Syria, where US-backed fighters have retaken more than half of the group's de facto Syrian capital Raqa.
Iraqi authorities are now expected to launch a new offensive against IS in their stronghold of Hawija in Kirkuk province.
But the battle for the town is expected to be more complicated because of its location.
Oil-rich Kirkuk province is at the centre of a long dispute and a source of lingering tensions between the Iraqi federal government and regional Kurdish authorities.
An offensive targeting Hawija could also be postponed due to a referendum on Kurdish independence planned for September 25 -- which Baghdad has called "untimely".
IS slides from defeat to defeat in Iraq
The group is also on the defensive in its other main stronghold of Raqa, in Syria, where the jihadists are under attack by forces backed by a US-led coalition.
Here is a look at how the IS "caliphate" declared in 2014 has been rolled back with defeats in Iraq, Syria and Libya:
- Iraq -
- TIKRIT: The hometown of late dictator Saddam Hussein, north of Baghdad, fell to IS in June 2014, soon after the city of Mosul. It was retaken in March 2015 by Iraqi troops, police and Shiite-dominated paramilitary forces.
- SINJAR: Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US-led coalition air strikes recaptured the northern town in November 2015, after jihadists had killed and abducted thousands of members of the Yazidi minority.
- RAMADI/FALLUJAH: The capital of Anbar, Iraq's largest province, Ramadi was declared fully recaptured in February 2016. Neighbouring Fallujah, the first Iraqi city seized by IS in January 2014, was reclaimed in June 2016.
- QAYYARAH: Iraqi forces backed by coalition aircraft retook Qayyarah in August 2016, providing Baghdad with a platform to assault Mosul, the country's second city 60 kilometres (40 miles) to the north.
- MOSUL: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Mosul on July 9 after a fierce nine-month-long phased offensive launched on October 17, 2016.
- TAL AFAR: The last major urban stronghold of IS in northern Iraq was declared "liberated" on Thursday, bringing the whole of Nineveh back under government control.
- Syria -
- KOBANE: The Kurdish town in northern Syria became an early symbol of the fight against IS, who were driven out by US-backed Kurdish forces in January 2015 after a battle of more than four months.
- PALMYRA: The ancient desert city has changed hands several times since it was first seized in May 2015 by IS, who blew up UNESCO-listed Roman-era temples and looted ancient relics. Syrian regime forces backed by Russian warplanes and allied militia ousted IS in March 2016, but jihadists won back control in December before being expelled a second time in March 2017.
- MANBIJ: On August 6, 2016, a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by US air strikes recaptured Manbij following a two-month battle. IS had seized the town in 2014 and used it as a hub for moving jihadists to and from Europe. It also controlled a key IS supply route.
- JARABULUS: Turkish troops and Syrian rebels swept almost unopposed into the border town on August 24, 2016, during Operation Euphrates Shield, which also targeted Kurdish militia.
- DABIQ: Syrian rebels backed by Turkish warplanes and artillery captured Dabiq in October 2016. Under IS control since August 2014, Dabiq has ideological significance because of a prophecy that Christian and Muslim forces will battle there at the end of time.
- AL-BAB: Turkish-backed Syrian rebels announced in February they had taken full control of the northern town, the last IS bastion in Aleppo province, after weeks of fighting.
- BATTLE FOR RAQA: On November 5, 2016, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters launched an operation to capture IS's de facto Syrian capital. The Syrian Democratic Forces say they now control 60 percent of the city, with an estimated 5,000-10,000 jihadists having fled to the Euphrates Valley.
- Libya -
- SIRTE: The head of Libya's unity government announced on December 17, 2016 the liberation of the IS bastion of Sirte, while cautioning that the battle against Islamist rebels was not over. IS seized the Mediterranean city of Sirte in June 2015 after being driven out of Derna, its first stronghold in Libya.
Amman (AFP) Aug 30, 2017
Jordan and Iraq on Wednesday reopened their only border crossing, saying security had been restored three years after the Islamic State group seized control of frontier areas. In a joint statement, the two countries' governments said the crossing, called Turaibil in Iraq and Al-Karameh in Jordan, was reopened after it was "secured... against attacks by criminal gangs". The border crossin ... read more
Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century
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