First Published: 2017-08-22

Iraqi troops recapture first two districts from IS bastion
Iraqi forces supported by US-led coalition retake two districts of IS’ former supply hub Tal Afar amid artillery fire from estimated 1,000 remaining jihadists.
Middle East Online

Paramilitary coalition spokesman says fighting likely to last weeks

TAL AFAR - Iraqi forces on Tuesday recaptured from the Islamic State group the first two districts of jihadist bastion Tal Afar, as the Pentagon chief visited Baghdad in a show of support.

The United Nations said thousands of civilians have fled Tal Afar in the two days since the start of the broad offensive backed by the US-led coalition fighting IS.

In remarks before meeting in Baghdad with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said he wanted to keep the spotlight on eradicating the jihadists.

"Right now our focus is on defeating ISIS inside Iraq, restoring Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity," said the Pentagon chief, using an alternative acronym for IS.

Iraqi troops, supported by the forces of a US-led international coalition, routed IS in Mosul in July after a gruelling nine-month fight for Iraq's second city.

They launched the offensive on Sunday to recapture Tal Afar, once a key IS supply hub between Mosul -- around 70 kilometres (45 miles) to the east -- and the Syrian border.

The jihadists inside Tal Afar, estimated to number around 1,000, responded with artillery fire Tuesday as the Iraqi forces massed outside the city.

Army, police and units of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition later took "full control" of Al-Kifah and Al-Nur districts in Tal Afar, the Hashed said.

The Iraqi forces had encircled the city despite what Hashed spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi described as "intense" fighting. He said the fighting for the city would likely last weeks.

The International Organization for Migration said its teams were "responding to thousands of civilians fleeing Tal Afar since the launch of the military campaign".

Since Friday, more than 3,000 people had arrived at two IOM emergency sites, many with just the clothes on their back, said the UN agency.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said it had received some 9,000 people at the Hamman Al Alil transit centre in the past week, and it was preparing to accommodate nearly 30,000 more.

- 'Fought like the dickens' -

Mattis declined to make any predictions on the battle.

"ISIS's days are certainly numbered, but it's not over yet and it's not going to be over anytime soon," he said.

Iraqi forces had "fought like the dickens in Mosul, (it) cost them over 6,000 wounded, somewhere over 1,200 killed," he noted.

Yet that comeback restored the confidence of the Iraqi forces after their shock loss of Mosul to IS in 2014.

Mattis stressed that retaking Mosul would not have happened "without... Abadi's steady hand" but also thanks to extensive US support.

The future of that support still must be settled, and there would be resistance from Shiite militia and Iranians, said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Mattis will also meet in Arbil with Massud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Mattis had said his discussions in Iraq would focus on the way ahead, including how to keep the country from again politically fragmenting or falling further under Iran's influence.

"Secretary Mattis is going to be very much focused on a pathway for the United States to continue to have to a residual force in Iraq to continue to train Iraqi security forces" and avoiding a successor from IS rising up, said Heras.

- Kurdistan referendum challenge -

A key issue is Iraqi Kurdistan's plan for an independence referendum on September 25, strongly opposed by the US as an event that could undermine Abadi and distract from the fight against IS.

"A referendum at this time would be potentially catastrophic to the counter-ISIS campaign," said Brett McGurk, the White House envoy to the anti-IS coalition.

"It's not just the United States; every member of our coalition believes that now is not the time to hold this referendum."

McGurk said the initial push on the outskirts of Tal Afar was "going well", with 235 square kilometres (90 square miles) cleared in the first 24 hours.

Iraqi and US forces were "moving faster, more effectively, more efficiently," he said, in part due to US President Donald Trump having given Mattis more authority to decide on tactics and resources needed.

Mattis, who is on a five-day swing through Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Ukraine, said he would also talk about reconstruction and resettlement of hundreds of thousand of Iraqis driven from their homes and towns by the fighting, especially Mosul.

"It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be a heavy lift for them going forward."

But Heras said Mattis, whom he said has earned firm trust among Iraqis, needs to help Abadi further build his power as a moderate for the post-war, with elections looming for next year.

"That will be a political pickle that Mattis will have to work Abadi through," he said.

 

Saudi Crown Prince calls Iran supreme leader 'new Hitler'

Lebanon’s Hariri suspends resignation

Syrian opposition agrees to send united delegation to Geneva talks

Revolt in US State Department over child soldier law

Outrage in Iraq over 'child marriage' bill

Hezbollah hails PM's suspension of resignation

Syrian opposition aims for unity at talks in Riyadh

Egypt police kill 3 Islamists in shootout

Turkey unsure if Assad to be part of Syria political transition

Migrant arrivals from Libya down since EU deal

Palestinian factions leave Cairo talks with little progress

Sudan’s Bashir looks to Putin for ‘protection’ from US aggression

China, Djibouti forge 'strategic' ties

IS propaganda channels fall quiet in 'unprecedented' hiatus

Kremlin to create Syria congress despite Turkey ‘reservations’

Netanyahu berates deputy minister for 'offensive' remarks on US Jews

Egypt PM heads to Germany for medical treatment

Egypt destroys 10 SUVs carrying arms on Libya border

Iraq launches operation to clear last IS holdouts from desert

Saudi-led coalition to reopen Yemen airport, port to aid

Turkey court rules to keep Amnesty chief in jail

France calls for UN meeting on Libya slave-trading

Egypt detains 29 for allegedly spying for Turkey

WTO panel to hear Qatar’s complaint against UAE blockade

Three dead as diphtheria spreads in Yemen

Israel seizes explosive material at Gaza border

Activists call for release of UK journalist held by IS

Bahrain upholds jail sentence for activist

Iraq attacks at lowest since 2014

Turkey continues crackdown in post-coup probe

Hariri back in Lebanon

Putin to hold Syria peace talks with Erdogan, Rouhani

US carries out air strikes against IS in Libya

Divided Syria opposition meets in Riyadh

Lebanon's Hariri in Egypt ahead of return home

Rebels say Sanaa airport 'ready to run' after coalition bombing

Greece to amend historic sharia law for Muslim minority

Turkey to ask Germany to extradite top coup suspect

Car bomb in northern Iraq kills at least 24

Morocco bans bitcoin transactions

13 million Syrians need aid despite relative drop in violence

Sudan urged to improve plight of Darfur's displaced people

Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation

Palestinians close communication lines with Americans

Anti-IS coalition strikes drop to lowest number