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Iraqi Forces Seize Tal Afar From Islamic State --Update

27 Aug 2017 2:07 pm
By Ali A. Nabhan 

ERBIL, Iraq -- Iraqi forces have driven Islamic State from the symbolic town of Tal Afar, the Iraqi military said Sunday, clearing one of the extremist group's few remaining strongholds in the country.

Operations continued against the militants in a handful of surrounding villages, a military statement said. Army officials said Saturday night that they were nearly in full control of Tal Afar's historic center, moving toward the northern neighborhoods still held by Islamic State.

The surprisingly swift conclusion comes just one week into the battle for Tal Afar, which once served as a way station between the group's de facto capitals Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. As U.S.-backed Iraqi forces penetrated Tal Afar, it became clear that Islamic State fighters either had abandoned the city ahead of the battle to seek refuge elsewhere, or had lay down their weapons to blend in with the local population.

Iraqi officials and western diplomats have long feared Islamic State would use the same survival tactic its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq had used in 2007 when confronted by a surge of U.S. troops: go underground and patiently wait for an opportune moment to resurface.

"It looks like Iraq isn't [any longer] a priority [for Islamic State]," said Rasha al-Aqeedi, a researcher at Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center, a Dubai think tank focused on Islamic movements.

"They're losing and have lost their veteran networks. The fighters probably won't stay in Iraq to defend their remaining networks, they're not strong enough to fight for. They'll opt to stay underground instead."

Al Qaeda in Iraq eventually resurfaced in 2013, morphing to become Islamic State. The Sunni Muslim militant group seized about one-third of Iraq's territory in a Summer 2014 blitz, establishing its caliphate, or religious empire, across Iraq and Syria. It since has carried out attacks across the Middle East and Europe.

Despite being uprooted from most of its caliphate over the past two years, Islamic State has been able to rely on a mix of operatives or inspired supporters with no connection to the group to carry out attacks.

One of the last large, strategic Iraqi towns under Islamic State control is Hawijah, strategically located in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, and likely to be the next offensive for the Iraqi military and the U.S.-led coalition that is providing support.

The group's remaining resources in Iraq are concentrated heavily along the border with Syria, providing it a crucial land bridge to traverse both countries and continue launching attacks.

Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool credited the sophistication of the battle-hardened Iraqi military for the victory in Tal Afar. The nine monthlong operation to retake Mosul, which ended in July, had honed their expertise, he said. The strategy to surround and cut off Tal Afar for nearly a year also contributed to the swift victory by severing Islamic State supply routes while U.S.-led coalition airstrikes helped take out important targets belonging to the extremists, he added.

Meanwhile the Lebanese army, which is nearing the end of a major offensive to expel Islamic State from its last foothold in the country, on Sunday announced a cease-fire with the extremist group.

The Lebanese military is using the cease-fire to negotiate an end to its fight against Islamic State by expelling the remaining militants to the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzour, which is still largely in control of Islamic State. Their removal will come in exchange for the expected retrieval of the bodies of eight Lebanese soldiers kidnapped and killed by the extremists in 2014.

Deir Ezzour is quickly becoming Islamic State's last stronghold in its caliphate, as its fighters and leadership converge there from Iraq and other parts of Syria -- and now, Lebanon.

Starting last fall, Islamic State began moving top officials and equipment to Mayadeen, a town in the province that is located near the most significant oil fields in the group's control.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed group led by Kurdish militants, on Friday announced they would begin an offensive on Deir Ezzour "very soon," according to local media reports. The Syrian government and its allies also are pressuring Islamic State in southern Deir Ezzour, inching closer to Mayadeen, while the SDF and its U.S. backers are to the north and west of the city.

The SDF, backed by U.S. Special Forces on the ground, are already in the midst of an assault on Raqqa, slowly gaining control over the northern Syrian city. Raqqa served as Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria before it began shifting its assets to Mayadeen late last year.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 27, 2017 10:07 ET (14:07 GMT)

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