Iraqi forces have broken the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) siege on 13 villages in Tal Afar as part of an offensive to retake one of the last ISIS strongholds in the country.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi on Sunday (August 20th) announced the start of operation "We Are Coming, Tal Afar" to liberate the city.
Joint army, police, and Counter-Terrorism Service forces are taking part in the fighting alongside local fighters, with support from international coalition aircraft.
The battle has been launched from all four sides of the city, Tal Afar provincial council member Tariq Akrish told Diyaruna.
"Iraqi forces on the first day of the fighting were able to break ISIS's defence lines and take control of five villages in western Tal Afar," he said.
These include Jabbara, al-Abra al-Saghira, al-Abra al-Kabira, Kasr Mihrab, and Qazal Quyu, he said.
Eight other villages were liberated in eastern Tal Afar, he added, including Batisha, al-Alam, Khafaja, Halabiya al-Ulla, Marazeef, Tal Sambak, Halawa and Abu Shaka.
"The enemy’s resistance has weakened," he said. "This is a good start that presages quick victory."
Last ISIS stronghold
Tal Afar is the militants’ last stronghold in the province of Ninawa and its recovery will be a "major gain", said security expert Fadel Abu Ragheef.
The city lies right in the middle of the road between Mosul and the border with Syria in the direction of al-Raqa, he told Diyaruna. "Its liberation will cut the most significant ISIS supply route."
Many ISIS senior leaders are present in Tal Afar, he said, and eliminating them will serve a powerful blow to the group.
"According to local sources, these elements, at the start of the battles, pledged allegiance till death to the group and prepared to fight using their traditional means, namely suicide bombers, car bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers," Abu Ragheef said.
They also have dug tunnels and shelters and built barricades and roadblocks, he said.
"But our forces have acquired sufficient skills to handle all enemy tactics," he added.
ISIS has reportedly burnt the group's "secret documents" in Tal Afar to prevent them from falling in the hands of Iraqi forces, he said.
"These documents, regardless of their content, will not be nearly as important as the 32,000 documents found by our troops in Mosul three months ago, which are an invaluable treasure," he said.
The documents found in Mosul provided critical information about ISIS's structure, resources and disbursement of salaries, he said.
Iraqi forces protect civilians
About 2,000 families have escaped Tal Afar in the weeks prior to the start of the operation, Akrish said, adding that Iraqi forces have made the necessary preparations to protect trapped civilians.
The army has allocated a radio frequency, 104.5 FM, to enable local residents to receive directions and information about safe escape route, he said. It has also set up a toll-free number, 195, where citizens can report any suspicious people or activities.
Ninawa provincial council member Banyan al-Jarba expressed his confidence in the security forces’ ability to protect civilians.
"Tal Afar is like Mosul, with a dense population and old neighbourhoods," he told Diyaruna.
There are fears that the militants will use thousands of people there as human shields or try to kill or risk the lives of those trying to escape, he said.
"But we have confidence in our forces’ ability to overcome this new test and protect people’s lives," he added.
Iraqi forces have gained significant experience during the battle of Mosul in terms of directing precision strikes and preventing the terrorists from killing civilians, he said.