TAL AFAR, Iraq: Iraqi forces were Sunday on the verge of fully recapturing the city of Tal Afar after driving ISIS terrorists from the centre of one of their last urban strongholds in the country.
Counter terrorism units have taken control of the centre of the city, which includes its historic Ottoman citadel.
“They raised the Iraqi flag on the citadel,” General Abdulamir Yarallah, commander of military operations in the battle for Tal Afar, said in a statement.
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 fighters in Iraq’s second city Mosul, where ISIS declared its “caliphate” in 2014.
Iraqi forces now hold “94 percent of the city, 27 out of 29” districts including the centre and citadel, according to the Joint Operations Command (JOC) which coordinates the anti-ISIS operation in Iraq.
The announcement Saturday came as the French foreign and defence ministers visited Baghdad to announce a loan of 430 million euros ($512 million) to help the Iraqi economy in the face of low oil prices and the cost of battling the ISIS fighters.
On Saturday, units also battled ISIS around Al-Ayadieh, 15 kilometres (10 miles) north of Tal Afar and strategically located on the road between the city and the Syrian border, Yarallah said.
In the whole Tal Afar region, “1,155 square kilometres of 1,655 square kilometres, or 70 percent of the area, have been taken” the JOC 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 ISIS 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 ISIS, launched the assault last Sunday after weeks of coalition and Iraqi air strikes.
Tal Afar sits on a strategic route between ISIS-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 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.