Civilians flee as Shiite groups close in on flashpoint town
Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have fled Tal Afar as Shiite paramilitary groups close in the Islamic State-held town on the road between Mosul and Raqqa, the main cities of the militant group’s self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The exodus from Tal Afar, 60 km west of Mosul, is causing concern among humanitarian organizations as some of the fleeing civilians are heading deeper into insurgents’ territory, where aid cannot be sent to them, provincial officials said.
Popular Mobilization units, a coalition of mostly Iraniantrained and backed militias, are trying to encircle Tal Afar, a mostly ethnic Turkmen town, as part of the offensive to capture Mosul, the last major city stronghold of Islamic State in Iraq. About 3,000 families have left the town, with about half heading southwest, toward Syria, and half northward, into Kurdish-held territory, said Nuraldin Qablan, a Tal Afar representative in the Nineveh provincial council, now based in the Kurdish capital Erbil.
“We ask Kurdish authorities to open a safe passage for them,” he told Reuters. He said Islamic State started on Sunday night to allow people to leave after it fired mortars at Popular Mobilisation positions at the airport, south of the city, and Popular Mobilization forces responded. The offensive started on Oct 17 with air and ground support from a US-led coalition. It is turning into the most complex campaign in Iraq since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and empowered the nation’s Shiite majority. The people fleeing Tal Afar are from the Sunni community, which makes up a majority in the Nineveh province in and around Mosul. The town also had a Shiite community, which fled in 2014 when the hardline Sunni group swept through the region. Turkey is alarmed that regional rival Iran could extend its power through proxy groups to an area close to the Turkish and Syrian borders, where Ankara is backing rebels opposed to the Russian and Iranianbacked Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Citing its close ties to Tal Afar’s Turkmen’s population, Turkey has threatened to intervene to prevent revenge killings should Popular Mobilization forces, known in Arabic as Hashid Shaabi, storm the town.
“People are fleeing due to the Hashid’s advance, there are great fears among the civilians,” said Qablan, who is also the deputy head of Nineveh’s provincial council. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi tried to allay fears of ethnic and sectarian killings in Tal Afar, saying any force sent to recapture it would reflect the city’s diversity. Cutting the road to Tal Afar would seal off Mosul as the city is already surrounded to the north, south and east by Iraqi government and Kurdish peshmerga forces. Iraq’s US-trained Counter Terrorism Service unit breached Islamic State’s defenses in east Mosul at the end of October and is fighting to expand a foothold it gained there.
Air strikes on Mosul
Iraqi military estimates put the number of insurgents in Mosul at 5,000 to 6,000, facing a 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government units, peshmerga fighters and Shiite militias. Mosul’s capture is seen as crucial towards dismantling the caliphate, and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr alBaghdadi, believed to have withdrawn to a remote area near the Syrian border, has told his fighters there can be no retreat. A Mosul resident said air strikes have intensified on the western part of the city, which is divided by the Tigris river running through its centre.
The strikes targeted an industrial area where Islamic State is thought to be making booby traps and transforming vehicles into car bombs, he said. —Reuters
KHIDR ILYAS: A member of the Iraqi Christian forces Kataeb Babylon (Babylon Brigades) holds a Kalashnikov assault rifle as he poses at the Mar Benham Syriac Catholic monastery in the town of Khidr Ilyas, southeast of Mosul. Iraqi fighters battling to oust the Islamic State group from Mosul captured the Catholic Mar Benham monastery on November 20, allowing its priests to return.—AFP