TAL AFAR: Iraqi government forces broke through IS’s lines inside Tal Afar on Friday, reaching the old city centre and the neighbourhood around the Ottoman-era citadel, according to a military statement.
On the sixth day of the offensive, elite Iraqi units seized the northern neighbourhoods of Nida’, Taliaa, Uruba, Nasr, and Saad, according to a statement from the Iraqi Joint Operations Command (JOC). The Iraqi forces have seized about three quarters of the city since the offensive started in the early hours of August 20, according to the latest JOC map, published on Friday evening.
The militants remain in control of the northeast quarter.
Tal Afar lies on the supply route between Syria and the former IS stronghold of Mosul, 80 km to the east.
It has produced some of the militant group’s most senior commanders.
Tal Afar, which had a pre-war population of about 200,000, is the latest objective in the US-backed war on IS, following the recapture of Mosul after a nine-month campaign that left much of the city, the biggest in northern Iraq, in ruins.
The fall of Mosul effectively marked the end of the self-proclaimed caliphate IS declared over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Tal Afar was cut off from the rest of IS-held territory in June.
Up to 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in Tal Afar, according to US and Iraqi military commanders.
The number of civilians left in the city is between 10,000 and 20,000, according to the American military.
As in the battle for Mosul, civilians are suffering.
Waves of residents fled the city in the weeks before the battle started.
Those remaining are threatened with death by the militants, who have held a tight grip there since 2014, according to aid organisations and residents who managed to flee.
On Tuesday, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said those who had fled were suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, having lived off unclean water and bread for three to four months.
People were arriving at camps for displaced people with wounds from sniper fire and mine explosions.
Two mass graves, containing about 500 bodies, have been found in Badosh, on the road between Mosul and Tal Afar, another military statement said on Friday. The dead are believed to be inmates killed by the militants when they overran a prison in the area in 2014, it said.
Battle for Deir al-Zor
US-backed Arab and Kurdish fighters said on Friday they would launch an offensive “very soon” to oust the Islamic State group from Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor province.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could start its assault on Deir al-Zor “within several weeks” in parallel with an ongoing battle for nearby Raqqa city, Ahmed Abu Khawla said.
The SDF alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias has been fighting IS inside Raqqa since June after a months-long advance on the
city, backed by air strikes and special forces from the US-led coalition.
As IS has come under pressure in Raqqa, many of its forces have fallen back on the towns and cities further east along the Euphrates in Deir al-Zor province.
Syrian government forces are fighting their own campaign in a different part of the province, which borders Iraq.
“The operation to liberate Deir al-Zor will begin very, very soon,” said Khawla, who heads the Deir al-Zor military council that fights under the SDF banner.
Col Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, said its focus remained on Raqqa.
Khawla said military plans were ready, and that his unit had already “entered Deir al-Zor territory and liberated several towns”.
The military council included 4,000 fighters, mostly Arabs and mostly from the province, he said. They had taken part in all the SDF offensives and were now fighting in Raqqa.
Nearly 800 fighters from Deir al-Zor’s tribes said on Thursday they had defected from the Syrian Elite Forces, an Arab group fighting alongside the SDF in Raqqa, to join Khawla’s council.
The Syrian army is advancing along the south and west bank of the Euphrates towards Deir al-Zor city. The SDF is mostly on the river’s north and east bank, where Raqqa lies. — Reuters