Alwaght– Media quoting the Iraqi military sources reported on Tuesday that airstrikes have been launched, ushering in an operation to recapture Tal Afar from ISIS terrorist group.
Earlier, the chief of Iraq army general staff had told the reporters that the armed forces were staying alert for an order from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to commence the liberating campaign.
The spokesman to Iraq’s ministry of defense Mohamad al-Khadhri on Thursday told Sputnik news agency of the beginning of the offensive, adding that a coalition of Iraqi forces was waiting conclusion of the air raids to follow them with a ground assault.
The Iraqi police chief Lieutenant General Raed Shaker in a statement said that units from the armored brigades and special forces will move towards Tal Afar to take positions there and prepare for combat.
On Tal Afar
Seized by ISIS following a sweeping offensive, Tal Afar is second-largest city of the northern province of Nineveh after Mosul. The ISIS-held city is only 65 kilometers from the province’s largest city, and the operation to take it back from the terrorist fighter comes less than a month after Mosul was declared liberated from the terrorist group. Tal Afar is located on a Mosul highway that links north of the country to Syria.
As of 2012 census, Tal Afar had a population of over 300,000. The city is predominantly inhabited by Shiite Turkmens, followed by Sunni Turkmens, and minorities like Kurds and Arabs. Iraq’s defense ministry confirmed that last month ISIS executed 200 of the city’s residents.
Why is it significant to reclaim Tal Afar?
The terrorist group utilizes the city’s highway that links the north to the Syrian territories as a major supply line, making Tal Afar one of the major areas facilitating ISIS logistics. Additionally, the ethnic diversity of the city’s population makes it next focal point, after Mosul, of an array of regional and international actors.
Military sources estimate that currently some 2,000 ISIS fighters are taking shelter in Tal Afar, and add that prospective progresses could deal a painful blow to the terrorist group by raising its casualties. Once Iraqi forces liberate Tal Afar, ISIS will lose its second-largest stronghold in northern Iraq.
Moreover, Tal Afar is located in a triangular border area whose flanks link Iraq to Turkey and Syria. Tal Afar is only 60 kilometers away from the Turkish and Syrian borders. In fact, a major part of Tal Afar importance comes from its being a linking ring between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
Tal Afar showed resistance to American invasion in 2003. The city fell in 2005 when nearly 5,000 American troops were deployed for a large-scale offensive. This has been the largest operation in the city to date. Tal Afar residents at that time said that the US forces used internationally-banned weapons during their push to finally manage to seize the city in September 22.
Tal Afar fell to ISIS in 2014, and very soon found its strategic significance in ISIS logistics and became a key base as it connected the Iraqi territories to Syria’s Raqqa, the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. Since 2014, the city was brought under heavy bombing of the US-led international military coalition, with many civilians killed as anti-ISIS air campaign rolled on. Many others left the city heading to other parts of the country, and even abroad.
Tal Afar significance for ISIS
Holding the city is important for ISIS as it continues to serve as a lifeline for terrorists between Syria and Iraq. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi entrusted rule of the city to Azerbaijani, Uzbek, and other Caucasian terrorist commanders who nearly 300 of them crossed the Turkish borders into Iraqi territories along with their families.
ISIS rewarded its fighters with seized homes in Tal Afar, and turned many houses and government buildings into security and operation headquarters as well as weapons and food storehouses.
Farming and animal husbandry, as before, have been ongoing activities in the city, providing part of Tal Afar and other ISIS-held regions’ food needs.
Tal Afar significance for Turkey
Tal Afar is not only of importance for ISIS. Turkey set eyes on the city, too. The Turkish leaders felt threats as Turkmens held close relations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the archenemy of Ankara and blacklisted as a terrorist group by Turkey. PKK is active in vast swaths of Nineveh, including Sinjar Mountains. Another source of Turkish worry stems from the Turkmens’ bonds with the Shiites, including the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), formed in opposition to ISIS.
Driven by own interests and also European pressures to stop influx of refugees from Iraq, Turkey is expected to closely watch the Tal Afar liberation process to which the PMF are also a party. Analysts warn that it may set roadblocks ahead of the operation, adding that Ankara’s earlier military dispatch to northern Iraq and insistence on participation in Mosul operation might serve a desire of the Turkish leaders to influence the liberation campaign in such regions as Tal Afar.