Iraq readies force to storm flashpoint town near Mosul
Iraq is readying a special force tasked with storming Tal Afar, a bastion of Islamic State west of Mosul, in a way that would avoid revenge killings against the town’s Sunni population. Capturing or isolating Tal Afar from Mosul is a key part of the USbacked offensive to take back Islamic State’s last major city stronghold in Iraq, by allowing the ground forces taking part in the campaign to complete Mosul’s encirclement. The army and police forces planning to storm Tal Afar will include Sunni and Shiite Turkmens, reflecting the main mix of the town’s population, said Hisham Al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based analyst who advises the government on Islamic State affairs. Tal Afar’s Shiite community fled after Islamic State, a hardline Sunni group, swept through the region two years ago, declaring from Mosul a “caliphate” that also spanned parts of Syria.
The offensive to take Mosul started on Oct 17 with air and ground support from a US-led coalition. The attack on Tal Afar has been so far executed by Popular Mobilization, a coalition made up mainly of Iranian-trained Shiite paramilitary groups whose involvement in the Mosul offensive sparked fears of sectarian killings. The 3,500-strong force being set up to storm Tal Afar will operate from an airbase just south of the city, said Hashimi. Popular Mobilization, or Hashid Shaabi, will stay outside the town, enforcing a blockade, he said. The Iraqi government has been keen on allying fears of sectarian killings in Tal Afar after Turkey threatened to intervene, citing its historic ties to Iraq’s ethnic Turkmens.
Thousands of civilians fled Tal Afar this week as Popular Mobilization closed in. Several dozen families from the town also arrived in Mosul, said a city resident, asking not to be identified as Islamic State is punishing by death those caught communicating with the outside world. Mosul is already ringed to the north, south and east by Iraqi government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces. Iraq’s US-trained Counter Terrorism Service breached Islamic State defences in east Mosul at the end of October. —Reuters