Iraqi paramilitary units mobilize in Nineveh Province, northern Iraq. Photo: AP
The focus of media has now shifted from Mosul to Tal Afar which the largest ISIS stronghold remaining in northwestern Iraq. The operation to retake the city is possibly problematic with some regional countries against the participation Shiite forces seen to be affiliated with Iran.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s biggest hurdle for the Tal Afar operation has been the participation of the Hashd al-Shaabi forces because of pressure from Iran. This is while the Sunnis, most Turkmen and Turkey regard the participation of the Hashd al-Shaabi forces as a red line.
The Hashd al-Shaabi forces have been valuable in the area. Before the operation to retake the right bank of Mosul started in October 2016, they regained control of the Tal Afar-Shingal route from the west, hampering travel for ISIS militants between Syria and Iraq.
Abadi previously had said that only the army and the police would be taking part in the operation to liberate Tal Afar. This reassured the Sunnis that the Hashd al-Shaabi forces won’t be taking part in the war.
However, Abadi said on July 29: “The Hashd al-Shaabi and the Hashd al-Ashayeri forces will be taking part in recapturing Tal Afar,”
The participation of the Hashd al-Shaabi forces in this battle might not be without a cost because Turkey has on several occasions said that it will take every measure to protect the Turkmen of Tal Afar if the Hashd al-Shaabi forces do participate.
ISIS and Iraqi forces currently have a 60-kilometer front. In addition to the town itself, ISIS also controls the townships of Ayazya and Muhalabia and 47 villages. Some of these are situated in the desert areas, the rest in hilly areas east of Mount Shingal.
“ISIS has dug tunnels between most villages and has made preparations. They have made more preparations for this war than they did for Mosul offensive and this is because fighting is their only way,” Haider Waili, an Iraqi military intelligence officer, told Rudaw.
“We are training for street fighting and surprise attacks. We have a plan to prevent the explosion of schools and government places,” Major Shakir Jawdat, commander with the Iraqi federal police, said.
He also revealed names of the forces taking part in the operation — a police force trained for war at night, a sniper brigade, bomb disposal teams, the Iraqi army, counter-terrorism forces (CTS), federal police, Hashd al-Shaabi and Hashd al-Ashayeri.
“The command of joint operations will design the plan for recapturing Tal Afar. All the Hashd forces and brigades will participate in the process,” Ahmed Asadi, spokesperson for the Hashd al-Shaabi forces, told Rudaw.
According to the Hashd al-Shaabi forces, around 2,000 ISIS militants are in Tal Afar.
Some brigades were moved from Mosul after Haider al-Abadi declared that the Hashd al-Shaabi and Hashd Ashayeri forces will take part in the offensive. These forces included: Brigade 29 of Division 15 from the Iraqi army, Brigades 9 and 10 from Division 3 of the federal police, as well Major General Hussein with the Hashd al-Shaabi forces and Tal Afar police forces.
“We have received no orders to participate in Tal Afar offensive. We prepare ourselves for months in the event a war approaches. But it is unlikely the government will allow the Nineveh guards to take part in this war,” Zuher Azim al-Jabouri, spokesperson for the Nineveh guards, told Rudaw.
Although it has been reported that only ISIS militants and their families remain in Tal Afar, officials have said kidnapped Yezidis are in the city.
“Nearly 350 abducted Yazidi Kurds are held by ISIS in Tal Afar, of whom most are children. ISIS has taken some of them to Syria,” Khayri Bozani, head of the Yazidi affairs office in the religious affairs ministry of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told Rudaw.
This was supported by a Hashd spokesman.
“We have collected information on the abducted Yazidis whom we will certainly be liberating if ISIS doesn’t kill them,” Ahmed Asadi, spokesperson for the Hashd al-Shaabi forces, said.
The town of Tal Afar is 65 kilometers west of Mosul. Its population is 250,000, most of whom are Turkmen.
Tal Afar is strategic historically, politically, historically as it connects Mosul to Syria. ISIS attacked Tal Afar two weeks after capturing Mosul in 2014.