Posts Tagged ‘Iraqi forces’

Iraqi forces retake the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in escalating dispute with Kurds

October 17, 2017


Iraqi forces drive through an oil field as they head towards the city of Kirkuk on October 16, 2017. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
 October 16 at 7:11 PM
Washington Post
 Iraqi forces took control of the contested city of Kirkuk on Monday, as two U.S. allies faced off over territory and oil in the wake of the Kurdish region’s independence vote last month.The Iraqi forces recaptured military bases, an oil field and other infrastructure held by the Kurdish troops, saying their aim was to return to positions around Kirkuk they held before fleeing in the face of an Islamic State push in 2014. But in the end they went further, entering the city itself.

Iraqi officers lowered Kurdistan’s flag and raised Iraq’s flag at the provincial council building in oil-rich Kirkuk, the center of a fierce dispute between the Kurds and Baghdad. Cars packed roads out of the city as some residents rushed to leave. Others who had been unhappy with Kurdish rule took to the streets to celebrate.

The United States, which trained both the Kurdish and Iraqi forces, seemed to be left in a bind as the crisis escalated between two partners in the fight against the Islamic State.

“We’re not taking sides,” President Trump said at a news conference in the Rose Garden, adding that the United States had a “very good relationship” with the central government and with Kurds.

Iraqi forces took control Oct. 16 of the airport and other key sites previously under Kurdish control in the northern city of Kirkuk. A Kurdish independence vote in September spurred clashes. (Reuters)

“We never should have been there,” he said, referring to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “but we’re not taking sides.”

A Kurdish referendum on independence last month intensified a decades-old dispute between the two sides. The Iraqi government, the United States, Turkey and Iran opposed the vote. For Baghdad, it added urgency to a need to reassert its claims to Kirkuk province, which has around 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves.

A senior administration official in Washington said there was no daylight between Trump’s “not taking sides” comment and the U.S. Embassy, which Monday morning said it supported the “peaceful reassertion” of the Baghdad government’s authority “in all disputed areas,” in line with the constitution.

“The president and the embassy in Baghdad are saying the same thing,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under White House ground rules. “We support joint administration between the central government and the regional government.”

Conflict “will only serve the interests of the enemies of Iraq — including ISIS and the Iranian regime,” the official said.

The skirmish between forces that fought together to oust Islamic State militants from their stronghold of Mosul presented a major distraction for Iraqi forces, which were due to begin an operation in the last pockets the insurgents control near the Syrian border.

Shortly after Trump spoke, the Kurdistan government’s representative in Washington, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, called the U.S. position “bewildering,” and she echoed Irbil’s charges that Iran was already benefiting from the upheaval.

Iraqi boys gather on the road as they welcome Iraqi security forces members, who continue to advance in military vehicles in Kirkuk on Oct. 16, 2017. (Stringer/Reuters)

Two men emblematic of ­Iranian-backed militia influence in Iraq stood alongside counterterrorism officers as the Iraqi flag was raised in Kirkuk. One was Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the country’s powerful Badr Organization. The other, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, has been designated for sanctions by the U.S. Treasury for his links to Kitaeb Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful branch of the Iranian military.

“How can you not take sides?” Rahman said. “This is Iranian-backed militia, using American weapons, to attack an ally of the United States. I’m bewildered by the U.S. government position. Not just President Trump’s statement, but statements from the [Defense Department] and others, trying to downplay what’s been happening in Kirkuk.”

The militias, she said, “have Abram tanks, artillery, they have deployed in their thousands.” She and her government are particularly disappointed, she said, “in light of what the administration has been saying since Thursday,” when Trump announced new sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard and described “Iran’s role as a destabilizer in the Middle East.”

Despite U.S. claims of efforts to set up negotiations — and Trump’s comments Monday — Washington’s position before and after the referendum has been that the Kurds must yield to Baghdad, Rahman said. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “has decided to impose his will by force,” she said. “We will counter this. We will push back. The potential for all-out war is there.”

“I hope we haven’t reached the point of no return,” Rahman said. “If we do, it will be catastrophic for everyone,” including “the United States and others who have invested so much political capital, as well as treasure and blood,” in Iraq.

Although the Kurdish people “do not want to be in that space,” she said, “we are survivors.”

As well as highlighting the deep rifts in Iraq, the confrontation has also exposed splits among the Kurds. Kurdish factions were divided on whether to allow in Iraqi troops or stand their ground, with some Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, ordered to give up their posts.

The Iraqi government said it “carefully planned and coordinated” the return of federal forces to Kirkuk with local security forces in advance. But it accused other Kurdish forces from outside the province of sending reinforcements to “harass and obstruct” federal forces.

Some elements of Kurdistan’s Patriotic Union party, or PUK, whose forces dominate in the area, agreed to withdraw in coordination with Baghdad. But the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, opposed a deal.

The general command of Kurdistan’s peshmerga slammed PUK officials for a “major historic betrayal of Kurdistan” by handing over positions, and the militia vowed to fight.

The KDP-affiliated Kurdistan Region Security Council said it destroyed five U.S.-supplied Humvees used in the advance by Iraq’s popular mobilization units, an umbrella group containing Iranian-backed militias that fight as part of Iraq’s security forces.

A video shared online showed six bodies of what appeared to be Kurdish peshmerga soldiers lying by a roadside near Iraqi vehicles. One wore the uniform of a lieutenant colonel.

“This is the result of disobedience of Masoud Barzani,” said the Iraqi fighter who was filming, referring to the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan and the KDP.

A curfew was imposed on the city Monday night as Iraqi forces announced they had completed their “first phase.”

Still in the hands of Kurds were swaths of disputed territories in other provinces.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.


The battle of Kirkuk: why it matters

October 17, 2017

AFP and AP

© Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP | Iraqi forces advance towards the centre of Kirkuk during an operation, on October 16, 2017.


Latest update : 2017-10-17

Three weeks after Iraqi forces region held a referendum on independence, Iraqi forces entered the disputed city of Kirkuk, forcing Kurdish fighters to withdraw. Here’s what you need to know:


Kirkuk has found itself at the heart of a long-running dispute between Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and its central government that reached fever pitch after Kurdish authorities staged a non-binding independence vote in late September.

The city sits on the edge of an expansive oil field that can be tapped for about a half million barrels per day. And while Iraq‘s oil revenues are supposed to be shared, disputes among the provinces have often held up transfers, leading parties to find leverage in holding the fields.

When Iraq’s armed forces crumbled in the face of an advance by Islamic State group in 2014, Kurdish forces moved into Kirkuk and secured the city and its surrounding oil wells. The city falls 32 kilometers (20 miles) outside the Kurds’ autonomous region.

Baghdad insisted the city and its province be returned, but matters came to a head when the Kurdish authorities expanded their referendum to include Kirkuk. To Baghdad, it looked like a provocation that underscored what it sees as unchecked Kurdish expansionism. The city of more than 1 million is home to a mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well as Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

How did it happen?

Swiftly. Iraq’s army, its anti-terrorism forces and the federal police began their operations before dawn Monday. By late afternoon, they were in control of several oil and gas facilities, the airport, and a military base.

Kurdish officials accused the Iraqi army of carrying out a “major, multi-prong attack,” and reported heavy clashes on the city’s outskirts, but a spokesman for Iraq’s state-backed militias said they encountered little resistance. The vastly outmatched Kurdish fighters withdrew from the city en masse, and journalists were left to wander into abandoned barracks and administrative buildings.

Local police forces remained in the city at the invitation of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi who called on civil servants to stay and serve their constituents. He has said he wants to share administration of the city with the Kurdish authorities and called on Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, to serve under the umbrella of Iraq’s unified military command.

“We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty and extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city,” said Abadi.

Abadi, in a bid to allay concerns of sectarian strife, promised the country’s predominantly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces would not enter Kirkuk, but Associated Press reporters saw Turkmen militiamen taking up posts in the western part of the city. The Iranian-sponsored militias are viewed with deep suspicion by Iraq’s Kurds, who see them as a policy implement of Tehran that threatens demographic change.

Thousands of revelers waving the Iraqi Turkmen and Iraqi national flags were celebrating the transfer of power in downtown Kirkuk by nightfall, but thousands more were fleeing the city with their belongings to the neighboring Kurdish region, fearful of national or militia rule.

Friction between U.S. allies?

The dispute over Kirkuk pits two close U.S. allies in the war against the Islamic State group against each other. The U.S. has armed, trained and provided vital air support to both sides in their shared struggle and called the frictions a distraction against the most important fight.

But for parts of Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish forces turned their weapons against each other. The Kurdistan Region Security Council said early Monday that the peshmerga destroyed at least five U.S.-supplied Humvees being used by Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias.

It’s the timing of the dispute that underscores how fragile Iraq is now. It was only three months ago that the peshmerga, federal forces, and the PMF were maneuvering alongside each other to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from IS, and two weeks ago that they expelled them from Hawija, their last bastion in northern Iraq. With IS now defeated there, the danger for Iraq will now likely come from its own divisions.

What’s next?

It will take time for Iraq and its Kurdish region to restore amicable relations after the strains of the past three weeks. Baghdad wants the Kurds to disavow the overwhelmingly in-favor referendum result. This has been refused by Irbil, the Kurdish capital.

Talks between the two sides are now likely to focus on easing sanctions against the Kurdish region, including those on the banking sector and against international flights.

There is considerable distrust between Baghdad and Irbil dating back to Saddam Hussein’s wars against the Kurdish region and forced Arabization of some of its cities.

But the two sides also rely on each other, especially in fragile economic times. The Kurdish region is responsible for up to a quarter of Iraq’s oil production, while Baghdad controls the currency and several pipelines in and out of north Iraq. The Kurdish region is presently entitled to 17% of Iraq’s federal budget, of which the Kurds are expected to try to negotiate a bigger share, in addition to greater autonomy.

Inside the Kurdish region, elections are slated to be held next month and the two major parties will be looking to leverage the crisis to win votes. It is no accident, analysts say, that President Masoud Barzani, whose term expired in 2015, slated the referendum two months before elections. He hopes to cast himself as a visionary for the Kurds, they say, even if he can’t deliver on the dream of independence.


Iraqi forces retake base, airport, oil field from Kurds

October 16, 2017


© AFP | Iraqi forces flash the sign for victory as they advance towards the southern outskirts of Kirkuk on October 16, 2017

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi forces made rapid progress on Monday in their operation against Kurdish fighters in the disputed Kirkuk province, seizing a key military base, an airport and an oil field, commanders said.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC), which groups all pro-government forces, did not specify whether there had been significant clashes in the operation, but the speed of the advance suggested Kurdish fighters were so far withdrawing without resistance.

Iraqi troops and allied forces launched the operation overnight after tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds spiralled into an armed standoff following last month’s referendum on Kurdish independence.

The JOC said its forces had retaken the K1 military base northwest of Kirkuk, the military airport east of the city and the Baba Gargar oil field, one of six in the disputed region.

Iraq’s central government had earlier demanded the Kurds withdraw from military facilities and oil fields they had seized in recent years, mainly during the fightback against the Islamic State group.

The oil fields are particularly contested.

Kurdish forces have been in control of six fields in the Kirkuk region providing some 340,000 of the 550,000 barrels per day exported by the regional administration.

Three of the fields — Khormala, Bay Hassan and Havana — produce some 250,000 barrels per day for export and are directly controlled by the Kurds.

The other three — Baba Gargar, Jambur and Khabbaz — are managed by the publicly owned North Oil Company (NOC) and produce some 90,000 barrels per day for export, with revenues going to the Kurds.

The JOC said that along with Baba Gargar, Iraqi forces had regained control of the local NOC headquarters.

Peshmerga forces loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a political party linked to Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who is himself a Kurd, were reported to be withdrawing from areas under their control after the operation was launched.

Pro-PUK forces were deployed south of the city, including at oil fields, while fighters loyal to the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), linked to Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani who initiated the referendum, were deployed to the north.

Iraq says it has retaken areas near Kirkuk — Iraqi troops have “burnt lots of houses and killed many people”

October 16, 2017

The Latest on Iraq, where federal forces have attacked the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk (all times local):

10 a.m.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry says federal forces have captured a power plant and a police station south of Kirkuk after what Kurdish officials described as a major assault aimed at driving Kurdish forces from the disputed city.

Monday’s brief statement from the Interior Ministry, on “Operation Impose Security on Kirkuk,” provided no details on the fighting or casualties, saying only that federal forces had taken control of industrial areas near the city.

Kurdish officials say federal forces launched a major assault south of the city that caused “lots of casualties,” without providing exact figures. It was not immediately possible to independently confirm their claims.

Tensions around Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city claimed by the Kurdish autonomous region and the central government, have soared since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a referendum condemned as unconstitutional by Baghdad.

Both the federal forces and the Kurdish forces are close U.S. allies that have been armed and trained as part of the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group.

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9:45 a.m.

The U.S.-led coalition is urging Iraqi and Kurdish forces to “avoid escalatory actions” after federal forces launched an assault south of the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, sparking clashes with the Kurds.

U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman, tweeted that the coalition is “closely monitoring sit. near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all.”

The U.S.-led coalition has armed and trained federal and Kurdish forces in the battle against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, which is still ongoing despite the retaking of the northern city of Mosul earlier this year.

Iraqi forces launched a major operation south of Kirkuk late Sunday and have captured industrial areas near the city. Kurdish officials say their forces have sustained casualties.

Tensions have been soaring since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum rejected by the central government as well as the United States.

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9:15 a.m.

An Iraqi Kurdish commander says federal forces have seized an oil and gas company and other industrial areas south of Kirkuk in fighting with Kurdish forces that caused “lots of casualties.”

Brig. Gen. Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, said Monday the Iraqi troops have “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” in Toz Khormato and Daquq, south of the disputed city. He said Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, have “destroyed one or two of their tanks.”

His claims could not be independently verified.

Kurdish officials say federal forces launched an assault south of Kirkuk late Sunday, aiming to capture a military base and surrounding oil wells.

The multi-ethnic city has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the Kurds and the federal government that escalated following last month’s non-binding Kurdish vote for independence.

The U.S. has armed and trained Iraqi and Kurdish forces, both of which are at war with the Islamic State group.


8:30 a.m.

Iraqi Kurdish officials say federal forces and state-backed militias have launched a “major, multi-pronged” attack aimed at retaking the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council says in a statement Monday that Kurdish forces known as peshmerga have destroyed at least five U.S.-supplied Humvees being used by the state-sanctioned militias following the “unprovoked attack” south of the city.

Tensions have soared since the Kurds held a non-binding referendum last month in which they voted for independence from Iraq. The central government, along with neighboring Turkey and Iran, rejected the vote.

The United States has supplied and trained Iraqi federal forces and the peshmerga, both of which are fighting the Islamic State group. The U.S. also opposed the referendum.

Iraqi and Kurdish Forces Face Off Near Kirkuk

October 16, 2017

Image result for Iraqi forces, kirkuk, Kurdish, photos

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi forces said Monday they had taken control of roads and infrastructure from Kurdish fighters near the disputed city of Kirkuk as tensions soar following a controversial independence referendum.

Image result for Iraqi forces, kirkuk, Kurdish, photos

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, which groups all pro-government forces, said it was making progress in its operation to “restore security” in Kirkuk.

Iraqi forces are aiming to retake military bases and oil fields which Kurdish peshmerga fighters took during the fightback against the Islamic State jihadist group (IS).

Central government forces took control of two bridges, two roads and an industrial zone to the southwest of Kirkuk as well as gas facilities, a power station, a refinery and a police station, the JOC said.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces exchanged artillery fire early Monday south of the city, after government forces began a “major operation” in the oil-rich province.

The offensive follows a standoff between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army prompted by the September 25 non-binding referendum that produced a resounding “yes” for independence for the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Baghdad has declared the referendum — held despite international opposition — illegal.

Both sides are key US allies in the battle against the jihadists, and the crisis has raised fears of fresh chaos just as Iraqi forces are on the verge of routing IS from the last territory it controls in the country.

Image result for Iraqi forces, kirkuk, Kurdish, photos

Iraq forces oust IS from northern town in drive on Hawija

September 22, 2017


© AFP | Iraqi troops flash victory signs as they advance on the town of Sharqat on September 21, 2017
SHARQAT (IRAQ) (AFP) – Iraqi forces achieved the first goal of a new offensive against the Islamic State group on just its second day Friday, penetrating the northern town of Sharqat, AFP correspondents said.

Some residents celebrated in the streets as government troops and paramilitaries entered the town centre and tore down the black flags of the jihadists who had ruled it with an iron fist for more than three years.

AFP correspondents saw little major damage in the town, although there had been casualties in the fighting as they saw the bodies of two jihadists in the back of a pickup.

 Image result for Hawija, Iraq, map

Sharqat was the first goal of a major offensive launched on Thursday to recapture an IS-held enclave centred on the insurgent bastion of Hawija, one of just two pockets still controlled by the jihadists in Iraq.

Sector operations chief General Abdel Amir Yarallah said some 20 villages around Sharqat had also been recaptured from IS.

The next goal is Hawija itself, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the southeast.

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General Abdel Amir Yarallah

After the defeat of IS in second city Mosul in July and the recapture of adjacent areas, Hawija and neighbouring towns form the last enclave still held by IS in Iraq apart from a section of the Euphrates Valley downstream from the border with Syria.

The mainly Sunni Arab enclave, which was bypassed by government forces in their advance north to Mosul last year, has been a bastion of insurgency ever since the first year of the US-led occupation in 2003.

The territory still held by IS in the “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria it proclaimed in 2014 has dwindled, with stronghold after stronghold coming under assault on both sides of the border.

Iraq soldiers, police and paramilitaries launched an offensive against the jihadists’s other remaining enclave earlier this week, pushing up the Euphrates Valley towards the IS-held towns of Anna, Rawa and Al-Qaim.

Tal Afar battle: Iraqi forces ‘dealing with final IS pockets’

August 26, 2017

BBC News

      Iraqi tanks blast IS positions in Tal Afar

    Iraqi forces say they are poised to recapture the city of Tal Afar from so-called Islamic State (IS) after six days of intense fighting.

    Troops have cleared the old citadel and its surrounding neighbourhood of militants, Lt Gen Abdul Amir Yarallah said on Saturday.

    Clashes were still being reported in the northern outskirts of the city.

    Tal Afar, near the Syrian border, is one of the jihadists’ last remaining strongholds in Iraq.

    Lt Gen Abdul Amir Yarallah

    Last month, a long-running operation drove IS militants from the Iraqi city of Mosul.

    Gen Yarallah, who is in charge the latest offensive, said his forces were now dealing with the final pockets of jihadi resistance in Tal Afar.

    Footage from within the city shows Iraqi forces moving through the streets in tanks with black smoke billowing from targeted buildings.

    Smoke rises during clashes between Iraqi forces and so-called Islamic State (IS) militants in Tal Afar, 26 August 2017
    Iraqi forces say they are dealing with the final pockets of IS resistance in Tal Afar. Reuters

    “Tal Afar city is about to fall completely into the hands of our forces, only 5% remains [under IS control]”, a military spokesman told Reuters news agency.

    Soldiers from the Shia-led paramilitary Popular Mobilisation (Hashd al-Shaabi) said they had encountered resistance from IS in the form of snipers, booby-trapped cars and mortars.

    Iraqi forces broke through IS defences to reach the centre of Tal Afar on Friday.

    Elite units had also seized the northern neighbourhoods of Nida, Taliaa, Uruba, Nasr and Saad, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command (JOC) said.

    It was believed about 2,000 militants had been inside Tal Afar, along with between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians.

    An Iraqi army attack helicopter fires at IS positions in Tal Afar city, northern Iraq, 25 August 2017
    Iraqi forces on Friday targeted IS positions in Tal Afar city from above. EPA photo

    Tal Afar, which had a predominantly ethnic Turkmen population of 200,000 before it fell to IS in June 2014, sits on a major supply route between Mosul, about 55km (35 miles) to the east, and the Syrian border, 150km (90 miles) to the west.

    Security sources say a disproportionate number of men from the city filled the ranks of IS as commanders, judges and members of their religious police.

    The city was cut off during the nine-month Mosul offensive by troops and allied militiamen from the Hashd al-Shaabi. But they did not attempt to retake it until this week.

    More than 30,000 civilians have fled the Tal Afar area since the end of April, many of them arriving at Iraqi government mustering points exhausted and dehydrated after trekking for 10 to 20 hours in extreme heat, the UN said.

    Map showing control of Iraq and Syria (14 August 2017)

    Iraq recaptures Tal Afar centre, citadel from IS

    August 26, 2017


    © AFP / by Ali Choukeir with Valerie Leroux in Baghdad | Smoke billows as Iraqi forces backed by Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary units advance inside the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, after the government announced the launch of operations to recapture it from Islamic State group jihadists

    BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi forces announced Saturday the ouster of Islamic State group jihadists from central Tal Afar and its historic citadel, leaving them poised to fully recapture one of the last IS urban strongholds in the country.The advance, less than a week into an assault on the strategic city, comes after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in July over the jihadists in Iraq’s second city Mosul, where IS declared its “caliphate” in 2014.

    “Units of the Counter-Terrorism Service liberated the Citadel and Basatin districts and raised the Iraqi flag on top of the citadel,” operation commander General Abdulamir Yarallah said in a statement.

    General Abdulamir Yarallah

    The CTS and federal police units had also seized three northern districts and the Al-Rabia neighbourhood west of the citadel, after having retaking the district of Al-Taliaa to the south on Friday.

    Clashes were ongoing on the northern outskirts and Iraqi forces were dealing with final pockets of jihadists inside the city, Yarallah said.

    Columns of smoke could be seen rising over the city after the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition fighting alongside government troops seized the Al-Khadra and Al-Jazeera districts.

    Abbas Radhi, a Hashed al-Shaabi fighter, said IS had resisted the advance mostly with sniper fire. “There are also booby-trapped cars, mortars. But they’ve been defeated, God willing,” he said.

    Government troops and units of the Hashed al-Shaabi, backed by a US-led coalition against IS, launched the assault last Sunday after weeks of coalition and Iraqi air strikes.

    Tal Afar sits on a strategic route between IS-controlled territories in Syria and Mosul, 70 kilometres (40 miles) further east.

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

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

    Irak Bodenoffensive auf die Stadt Tal Afar (Reuters)

    The Iraqi army said in a statement on Saturday its troops have “liberated” Tal Afar’s city center and its Ottoman-era citadel.

    – Obstacle course –

    Until its takeover by IS, Tal Afar was largely populated by Shiite Turkmen, whose beliefs are anathema to the Sunni hardliners of IS.

    Directly targeted by the jihadists, most of the city’s 200,000-strong population fled.

    Some members of Tal Afar’s Sunni minority joined the jihadists’ ranks, forming an IS contingent with a particular reputation for violence.

    Pro-government forces faced an obstacle course of roads blocked with earth embankments and strategically-parked trucks, as well as sniper fire and mortar shelling.

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

    The International Organization for Migration said “thousands of civilians” had fled Tal Afar since the offensive began.

    Those who flee through desert areas face soaring temperatures for long periods, putting them at risk of dehydration, said Viren Falcao of the Danish Refugee Council.

    Officials have said the capture of the city would make it even more difficult for the jihadists to transport fighters and weapons between Iraq and Syria.

    The jihadist group has lost much of the territory it controlled and thousands of its fighters have been killed since late 2014, when US and Arab allies formed an international coalition to defeat the group.

    Iraq announced the “liberation” of Tikrit, 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of Baghdad, in early 2015.

    Sunni-majority Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, fell in February 2016, followed by nearby Fallujah four months later.

    But the group’s biggest defeat was in Mosul, where some 30,000 Iraqi forces backed by US-led air support launched a vast operation in October.

    Three months later, they retook the city’s east and turned their attention to the west, finally declaring the whole city “liberated” on July 9.

    – Future offensives –

    The jihadist group still retains territory in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, where a US-backed Kurdish-Arab coalition is fighting to drive the group from its de facto Syrian capital Raqa.

    Once Tal Afar is retaken, Baghdad is expected to launch a new offensive on Hawija, 300 kilometres north of Baghdad.

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

    The Tal Afar advance came as the foreign and defence ministers of France visited Baghdad on Saturday to affirm their country’s support in the fight against IS.

    Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Florence Parly, who arrived in the Iraqi capital on Friday evening, were scheduled to meet Abadi.

    “As long as our common enemy has not been eradicated, France will continue to take part” in the campaign, said Parly, whose country’s forces have carried out air and artillery strikes in support of Iraqi operations.

    by Ali Choukeir with Valerie Leroux in Baghdad

    Iraqi forces advance towards heart of IS-held bastion

    August 23, 2017


    © AFP / by Ahmad al-Rubaye | Detailed map of Tal Afar showing positions of forces in the area.
    TAL AFAR (IRAQ) (AFP) – Iraqi forces advanced Wednesday towards central Tal Afar, one of the Islamic State group’s last strongholds in the country, as aid workers braced for an exodus of civilians fleeing the fighting.Armoured personnel carriers full of soldiers and fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition moved into Al-Nur district early in the morning as warplanes flew overhead, said an AFP photographer on the ground.

    They encountered trucks parked across roads with earthen embankments aimed at stopping them, as well as sniper fire and mortar shelling.

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     FILE PHOTO — A member of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units) patrols in the village of Ayn Nasir, south of Mosul, on October 29, 2016. (Photos by AFP)

    Six weeks after routing the jihadists from Iraq’s second city Mosul, the Iraqi forces launched an assault Sunday on Tal Afar, where an estimated 1,000 jihadists are holed up.

    They retook three first districts of the city on Tuesday, but as with the gruelling nine-month campaign to recapture Mosul, their convoys face an onslaught of suicide and car bomb attacks.

    On Wednesday they “entered the neighbourhood of Al-Kifah North… and headed towards the centre of the city,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman for the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition fighting IS alongside the army and police.

    “All the lines of IS defence outside the city have been broken and the troops are advancing from all directions towards the inner quarters of the city,” he added.

    As they advanced, troops said they discovered a network of underground tunnels used by the jihadists to launch attacks behind lines of already conquered territory, or to escape.

    – Leaflet drop –

    In a bid to counter these surprise attacks, the Iraqis dropped leaflets overnight calling on civilians to help by marking houses where the jihadists are located.

    The International Organization for Migration said “thousands of civilians” had fled Tal Afar since the offensive began.

    Image result for Hashed al-Shaabi, photos

    But around 30,000 civilians are trapped in the fighting, according to the United Nations.

    Caught between the two sides, those still inside the city have been pounded by Iraqi and US-led coalition aircraft for weeks, as well as intense artillery fire since Sunday.

    The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) fears they could be “used as human shields” and that “attempts to flee could result in executions and shootings,” said the spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

    The United Nations and aid agencies are working to establish shelters for the displaced.

    Those who flee through desert areas face temperatures of up to 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), sometimes for periods of more than 10 hours, putting them at risk of dehydration, said Viren Falcao of the Danish Refugee Council.

    Tal Afar was once a key supply hub for IS between Mosul — which lies around 70 kilometres (45 miles) to the east — and the Syrian border.

    The Iraqi forces massed around Tal Afar on Tuesday before the jihadists responded with artillery fire.

    Army, police and of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition later took “full control” of the Al-Kifah, Al-Nur and Al-Askari districts, the Hashed said

    The Iraqi forces had encircled the city despite what Hashed spokesman Assadi called “intense” fighting. He said the battle for the city would probably last weeks, in contrast to the months-long battle for Mosul.

    – ‘On the run’ –

    After meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad on Tuesday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said the jihadists were “on the run”.

    “Cities have been liberated, people freed from ISIS, from Daesh,” Mattis said, using alternative names for IS.

    The jihadists had not been able “to stand up to our team in combat, and they have not retaken one inch of ground that they lost,” he said.

    Mattis declined to make any predictions about the battle.

    “ISIS’s days are certainly numbered, but it’s not over yet and it’s not going to be over anytime soon,” he said.

    IS jihadists in June 2014 overran Tal Afar, a Shiite enclave in the predominantly Sunni province of Nineveh.

    At the time, its population of around 200,000 was overwhelmingly Turkmen, one of Iraq’s largest ethnic minorities.

    Tal Afar’s Shiites were directly targeted by IS, while some members of its Sunni minority joined the jihadists and went on to form a contingent with a particularly brutal reputation.

    by Ahmad al-Rubaye

    Pentagon chief in Baghdad as Iraqi forces press Tal Afar assault

    August 22, 2017


    © AFP | The Iraqi government announced the beginning of a military operation to retake Tal Afar from Islamic State group jihadists on August 20, 2017

    BAGHDAD (AFP) – US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday as Iraqi forces pressed an assault on Tal Afar, the Islamic State group’s last major bastion in the country’s north.Mattis flew in for talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other top officials, as well as Massud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, saying he wants to help keep the regime focused on eradicating IS jihadists.

    “Right now our focus is on defeating ISIS inside Iraq, restoring Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mattis told journalists ahead of his trip to Baghdad, using an alternative acronym for IS.

    Iraqi troops, supported by the forces of a US-led international coalition, routed IS fighters in Mosul in July following a gruelling nine-month fight.

    On Sunday they launched an assault on Tal Afar, once a key IS supply hub between Mosul — around 70 kilometres (45 miles) further east — and the Syrian border.

    In the desert plains around Tal Afar, convoys of tanks and armoured vehicles could be seen heading Monday for the jihadist-held city, raising huge clouds of dust.

    Mattis would not make any predictions on the fight.

    “ISIS’s days are certainly numbered, but it’s not over yet and it’s not going to be over anytime soon,” he said.