BAGHDAD: Iraq declared on Thursday that its forces had retaken the northern city of Tal Afar and the surrounding region in another major victory over Islamic State.
IS, which seized nearly a third of Iraq in 2014 in a stunning defeat for the army, now controls just 10 percent of the country, according to the US-led international coalition against the militants.
The fall of Tal Afar, located in the northern province of Nineveh, deprives IS of what was once a key supply hub between its territory in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
After a 12-day battle by Iraqi forces backed by coalition air strikes and paramilitary fighters, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Tal Afar had “regained its place in the national territory”.
He vowed to liberate “every inch of Iraqi territory” from the group.
“We say to the criminals of IS: wherever you are, we’re coming to liberate it and you have no choice but to die or surrender,” Abadi said.
The full recapture of Nineveh province comes weeks after coalition-backed Iraqi forces ousted the militants from Mosul, three years after they declared a self-styled “caliphate” straddling Iraq and war-torn Syria.
IS has lost much of the territory it controlled in the two countries and thousands of its fighters have been killed since late 2014, when the coalition was set up to defeat the group.
But the group, which is also known as ISIS, continues to claim attacks in the Middle East and Europe.
In a statement, the coalition against IS congratulated Abadi and the Iraqi security forces (ISF) “on their stunning victory in Tal Afar” and Nineveh province.
But it cautioned that “dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts so they do not threaten the security of Tal Afar in the future.”
Brigadier General Andrew A. Croft, deputy commander of the coalition, said that Iraqi forces had killed between 600 and 700 IS fighters during the battle for Tal Afar while around 100 more had surrendered.
IS fighters in Iraq now control only the town of Hawija around 300 kilometres north of Baghdad, as well as several areas in the vast western desert province of Anbar along the border with Syria.
IS overran Tal Afar in June 2014. The city lies around 450 kilometres northwest of the capital Baghdad and about 70 kilometres west of Mosul, Iraq’s second city.
At the time Tal Afar had a population of around 200,000, but officials said when the battle to recapture the city was launched on August 20 that it was unknown how many remained.
Officials have said the capture of Tal Afar would make it even more difficult for the militants to transport fighters and weapons between Iraq and Syria.
Authorities had accused the approximately 1,000 militants believed to be in the city when the operation was launched of using civilians as human shields during Iraqi and coalition air strikes.
Progress in Tal Afar was far more rapid than in Mosul, Iraq’s second city which fell only after a gruelling nine-month battle that began in October 2016.
IS has also suffered major losses in Syria, where US-backed fighters have retaken more than half of the group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.
Iraqi authorities are now expected to launch a new offensive against IS in their stronghold of Hawija in Kirkuk province. But the battle for Hawija is expected to be more complicated because of its location.
Oil-rich Kirkuk province is at the centre of a long dispute and a source of lingering tensions between the Iraqi federal government and the regional Kurdish authorities.
An offensive targeting Hawija could also be postponed due to a referendum on Kurdish independence planned for September 25 — which Baghdad has called “untimely”.