The operation to retake the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, from the Islamic State terror group began Sunday morning, Iraq’s prime minister said.
Tal Afar and the surrounding area is one of the last pockets of IS-held territory in Iraq after victory was declared in July in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. The town, about 93 miles east of the Syrian border, sits along a major road that was once a key IS supply route.
“The city of Tal Afar will be liberated and will join all the liberated cities,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abad said in an address to the nation broadcast on state media early Sunday.
“My message to [IS]: you [have] no option, you either surrender or die,” he continued. “We prevailed in all battles against [IS], while [IS] faced death and defeat in all their battles.”
Iraq’s mostly Shiite militiamen largely stayed out of the operation to retake Mosul, a mostly Sunni city about 50 miles to the east, but have vowed to play a bigger role in the battle for Tal Afar, which was home to both Sunni and Shiite Turkmen before it fell to IS, a Sunni terrorist group. The militias captured Tal Afar’s airport, on the outskirts of the town, last year.
Their participation in the coming offensive could heighten sectarian and regional tensions. The town’s ethnic Turkmen community maintained close ties to neighboring Turkey. Turkish officials have expressed concern that once territory is liberated from IS, Iraqi Kurdish or Shiite forces may push out Sunni Arabs or ethnic Turkmen.
A stepped-up campaign of airstrikes and a troop buildup has already forced tens of thousands to flee Tal Afar, threatening to compound a humanitarian crisis sparked by the Mosul operation.
Some 49,000 people have fled the Tal Afar district since April, according to the United Nations. Nearly a million people remain displaced by the nine-month campaign to retake Mosul.