By Ali Choukeir
Tal Afar, Iraq (AFP) Aug 24, 2017
As Iraqi forces advance through Tal Afar, their Shiite religious songs mix with the crackle of gunfire by Islamic State group jihadists and the boom of air strikes.
The battle to oust the jihadists from one of their last strongholds in Iraq is proceeding more quickly than expected.
On a dirt road covered with stones and obstacles left by retreating IS fighters, armoured vehicles of the Iraqi police and Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary units bounce along between the ruts.
To keep their morale high, the men in the front vehicle have connected up a loudspeaker that blasts out religious chants at full volume.
Today's goal is to seize the western district of Al-Wahda.
Police and Hashed fighters have already set up a base in a primary school in the adjacent Al-Kifah district.
Al-Wahda is another step towards the centre of the city, most of whose residents were Shiite Turkmens before IS overran it three years ago.
Progress in Tal Afar has been far more rapid than in Mosul. Iraq's second city fell to Iraqi forces in July after a gruelling nine-month battle.
"Victory could come just a few days from now," Hashed officer Abu Ahmad al-Haddi tells AFP. "Maybe even before Eid al-Adha", the Muslim holiday set to start in Iraq on September 2.
Most of the fighting is taking place in the residential areas of Al-Kifah and Al-Wahda.
At a turn in the road, a burned-out house appears.
Armed men move from building to abandoned building, treading carefully through the ghost town to avoid booby traps and explosive devices left behind by fleeing jihadists.
- Car bombings -
Many of the streets are blocked by mounds of earth or strategically parked trucks.
"Once we manage to clear the obstacles, the car bombings surge," says Haidar, 27, a federal police officer.
The young Iraqi, who was fighting in Mosul until just over a month ago, can barely be heard over the constant sound of gunfire and explosions, which rarely stop for more than a few minutes.
Tal Afar, a millennia-old northern city dating back to the Assyrian empire, has suffered much since IS seized it in 2014.
Its Ottoman-era citadel was damaged during the jihadists' sweeping offensive that summer, which left them in charge of much of northern Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Some 200,000 people lived here beforeIS arrived, most of them Turkmen Shiites, whose school of Islam is anathema to the hardline Sunni fundamentalists of IS.
Most of the residents fled. The United Nations estimates that 30,000 or so remain trapped inside the city, but they are nowhere to be seen as Iraqi forces advance, their vehicles bearing Iraqi and Hashed flags.
Haddi says the biggest dangers are car bombs and "infiltrators", jihadists disguised as members of the security forces who sneak across front lines and try to cause as much damage as possible.
More such attacks are to be expected, federal police sniper Captain Saif Adnan al-Salloum says.
After he and his unit seize Al-Wahda, they prepare to head for the southwestern district of al-Silo to do battle with another group of IS fighters.
Tal Abta, Iraq (AFP) Aug 22, 2017
Iraqi forces on Tuesday recaptured from the Islamic State group the first two districts of jihadist bastion Tal Afar, as the Pentagon chief visited Baghdad in a show of support. The United Nations said thousands of civilians have fled Tal Afar in the two days since the start of the broad offensive backed by the US-led coalition fighting IS. In remarks before meeting in Baghdad with Prime ... read more
Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century
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