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Iraqi forces poised for victory over IS in Tal Afar
By Ali Choukeir
Tal Afar, Iraq (AFP) Aug 27, 2017

Tal Afar residents who fled are back to battle IS
Tal Afar, Iraq (AFP) Aug 27, 2017 - Iraqi Turkmen fighter Abbas Yussef is all smiles, clutching his Kalashnikov near the front lines in Tel Afar after his unit retook his home neighbourhood from Islamic State group jihadists.

"I can't describe my joy when I saw my house again," Yussef says.

"I can't describe how it felt to take it back, a gun in my hand."

Three years ago, IS seized nearly one third of Iraq, including Tal Afar, in a sweeping offensive that forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Yussef was among them, but quickly, along with thousands of others, he responded to a call by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Iraq, to take up arms against the jihadists.

Soon afterwards he enrolled in the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi, an umbrella organisation which is dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias but which also includes Shiite Turkmen.

The Hashed took part in the offensive to retake Iraq's second city Mosul, which was liberated in July after a gruelling nine-month onslaught, alongside US-backed Iraqi military, police and counter-terrorism forces.

Now the paramilitary group has been battling to recapture Tal Afar, where IS has been driven out of all 29 districts in the northern city a mere week into an assault by Iraqi forces.

- Families fled south -

With Iraqi forces poised to declare victory over IS, Hashed fighters like Yussef recall how three years ago they were driven from their homes by advancing jihadists.

"I had to leave with my family for Diwaniya" province south of Baghdad, "leaving behind the house I had spent a lifetime building," Yussef tells AFP, wiping dust and sweat from his face.

The former Iraq army officer now in his 40s was battling IS holdouts in the western Tal Afar neighbourhood of Al-Kifah when he saw his house -- and that brought a smile to his face.

Akram Kambris was also driven out by IS from Al-Kifah.

Sitting on a rock, the Hashed fighter points to an out-patient clinic.

"I was posted there when I was in the local police," he says before pointing to another rose-coloured red-brick building. "That's my sister's house."

Kambris recalls that three years ago he and his "entire family" fled south when the jihadists swept into Tal Afar.

Now, he says, all of Tal Afar's residents are involved in the offensive to rout IS from the city. "The younger ones fight and the older ones organise (food) convoys" for the militiamen.

- 'Masters of the land' -

Most of the city's 200,000-strong population -- overwhelmingly Shiite Turkmen whose beliefs are considered heretical by the Sunni jihadists of IS -- fled Tal Afar after IS seized it.

Some members of the city's Sunni minority joined the jihadists and went on to form a contingent with a particularly brutal reputation.

According to Akram, "just a few families linked to IS" have stayed on in Tal Afar.

Yussef says that "most of the IS chiefs in Tal Afar" hail from prominent families.

According to him, "there are Kurds among IS and their leader is Abu Alaa al-Talafari", who was close to the leader of the jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

"Actually most of the IS emirs are originally from Tal Afar. Foreign and Turkish IS members joined later," says Yussef.

Another Hashed militiaman, Abu Zeinab, brands IS fighters in Tal Afar as "cowards".

"They are not fighting. We entered one house yesterday and found a stockpile of weapons," he says.

"They could have used them and held out for another two weeks, but they didn't. They can't resist us, because here we are the masters of the land."

Iraqi forces backed by local militia and a US-led coalition were poised Sunday to drive the Islamic State group from the city of Tal Afar, dealing another blow to the jihadists.

Just a week after authorities announced an offensive to push the jihadists from one of their last major urban strongholds in Iraq, the Joint Operations Command said Iraqi forces held all 29 districts of the city and were pursuing final mopping up operations.

Pro-government fighters could already be seen celebrating, waving Iraqi flags and flashing victory signs as their tanks rolled through the streets.

The offensive comes just weeks after Iraqi forces retook second city Mosul from IS, in their biggest victory since the jihadists seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in mid-2014.

Much of that territory has since been retaken with support from coalition air strikes, and IS is also facing a major US-backed offensive against its de facto Syrian capital Raqa.

The loss of Tal Afar, in northern Iraq between Mosul and the Syrian border, will deprive IS of what was once a significant hub for movement between the Syrian and Iraqi components of the self-styled "caliphate" it declared three years ago.

On Saturday, Iraqi forces took control of the city centre and Tal Afar's Ottoman-era citadel.

Nearby, a huge crater could be seen on Sunday at the base of the city's main mosque, a testament to the intensity of the air strikes that battered the city.

Surrounding buildings still featured religious slogans written by the jihadists and an IS flag lay upside down on the ground.

Government troops and units of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition launched the assault last Sunday after weeks of coalition and Iraqi air strikes.

Progress in Tal Afar was far more rapid than in Mosul, which fell to Iraqi forces only after a gruelling nine-month battle.

Officials have said they hope to announce victory by Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday set to start in Iraq on September 2.

The next target in the area was the town of Al-Ayadieh 15 kilometres (10 miles) north of Tal Afar and strategically located on the road between the city and the Syrian border.

- Network of tunnels -

In the whole Tal Afar region, "1,155 square kilometres (445 square miles) of 1,655 square kilometres (640 square miles), or 70 percent of the area, have been taken" the JOC said late on Saturday.

Pro-government forces faced an obstacle course of roads blocked with earth embankments and strategically parked trucks, as well as sniper and mortar fire during the battle for Tal Afar.

Troops also said they discovered a network of underground tunnels used by IS to launch attacks behind lines of already conquered territory, or to escape.

Most of the city's 200,000-strong population had fled after IS seized it. Until its takeover by IS, Tal Afar was largely populated by Shiite Turkmen, whose beliefs are considered heretical by the Sunni jihadists of IS.

Some of the city's former Turkmen residents returned as fighters with the Hashed, like Abu Zineb who accused IS of having "blown everything up" in Tal Afar.

"They destroy homes because of the fighting, but also to stop residents from returning," he told AFP.

The jihadist group has lost much of the territory it controlled and thousands of its fighters have been killed since late 2014, when the US-led international coalition was set up to defeat the group.

Once Tal Afar is retaken, Baghdad is expected to launch a new offensive on Hawija, about 300 kilometres (185 miles) north of the Iraqi capital.

The coalition has announced carrying out strikes near Hawija in recent days, including two that killed IS fighters and destroyed a command post.

IS is also present in the vast western province of Anbar, where it controls several zones along the border with Syria, including the Al-Qaim area.

Despite its losses in Iraq and Syria, IS has continued to claim responsibility for attacks carried out by its members or supporters abroad, including this month's deadly attacks in Spain and knife attacks in Russia and Brussels.

Iraqi forces hope for quick victory over IS in Tal Afar
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 I ... read more

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