(New York Times) Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq announced on Thursday the liberation of Tal Afar, one of the last cities that had been under the control of ISIS, after a battle that lasted just 11 days, a further sign that the extremist group’s days of administering territory in Iraq are on the wane.
With that, Mr. Abadi said, the whole of Nineveh Province, which includes the city of Mosul as well as Tal Afar, was now free of ISIS.
The relatively quick victory in Tal Afar, coming on the heels of a grueling and bloody nine-month fight for Mosul, was not surprising given that the city had been cut off for months and surrounded by pro-government militias who moved on the city last fall as the campaign for Mosul began.
Mr. Abadi’s announcement came several days after Iraqi forces lifted the national flag in the center of Tal Afar. But many of ISIS fighters had fled to a nearby village, Ayadiya, where they put up a last stand, and where the Iraqi government rushed forces this week to face them down.
ISIS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, retains control in several other cities and rural districts across Iraq, and in his statement on Thursday, Mr. Abadi had a message for the militants in those places: “Wherever you are, we are coming for liberation, and you have no option but to surrender or die.”
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The remaining areas under the control of ISIS in Iraq are the city of Hawija, in Kirkuk Province; the western deserts of Anbar Province, including the town of Qaim, near the Syrian border; and half of the city of Shirqat, in Salahuddin Province.
Iraqi commanders have said that the next target is Hawija, although that fight could be complicated by a referendum on independence that Iraq’s Kurds are planning to hold in September. Hawija is near Kirkuk, a city long divided by Arabs and Kurds that was taken over by Kurdish forces in 2014, after ISIS swept through northern and central Iraq.
With the planned referendum, which Baghdad opposes, officials have said that the planning for Hawija could be delayed because of talks about the involvement of Kurdish forces in the battle.
The fight for Tal Afar involved a constellation of Iraqi forces, including elite special forces, the Iraqi Army, federal police officers and Shiite militias with ties to Iran, backed by American air power.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top American military commander in Iraq, said in a statement on Thursday that, with the “historic liberation of Mosul and now a swift and decisive victory in Tal Afar,” the Iraqi security forces had “shown, once again, they are an increasingly capable force that can protect the Iraqi people, defeat ISIS within Iraq and secure the country’s borders.”
“This is yet another significant achievement for the Iraqi security forces and the government and the people of Iraq,” he added.
In view of the quick victory in Tal Afar, there were rumors that a deal had been struck to allow ISIS fighters to flee. Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi, a top commander in Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, said that many ISIS fighters had managed to escape, but not because of any pact with the security forces.
General Aridhi said that the victory had come quickly largely because, in contrast to Mosul, there were few civilians left in Tal Afar, allowing the Iraqi security forces to bring more destructive firepower to bear.