Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced on Sunday that Iraqi security forces have launched an operation to liberate the town of Tal Afar from the clutches of the ISIS terrorist group.
“The city of Tal Afar will be liberated and will join all the liberated cities,” Abadi said in an address to the nation broadcast on state television early Sunday.
“You either surrender or die.”
Tal Afar and the surrounding area is one of the last pockets of ISIS-held territory in Iraq after victory was declared in July in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. The town, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of the Syrian border, sits along a major road that was once a key ISIS supply route.
Tal Afar, 50 miles (80 km) west of Mosul, was cut off from the rest of the ISIS-held territory in June.
The city is surrounded by Iraqi government troops and Shi’ite volunteers in the south, and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the north.
About 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in the city, according to US and Iraqi military commanders. They are expected to put up a tough fight, even though intelligence from inside the city indicates they have been exhausted by months of combat, aerial bombardments, and by the lack of fresh supplies.
Hours before Abadi’s announcement, the Iraqi air force dropped leaflets over the city telling the population to take their precautions. “Prepare yourself, the battle is imminent and the victory is coming, God willing,” they read.
ISIS’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” effectively collapsed last month, when US-backed Iraqi forces completed the takeover of the militants’ capital in Iraq, Mosul, after a nine-month campaign.
But parts of Iraq and Syria remain under its control, including Tal Afar, a city with a pre-war population of about 200,000.
Waves of civilians have fled the city and surrounding villages under cover of darkness over the past weeks, although several thousand are estimated to remain, threatened with death by the terrorists who have held a tight grip there since 2014.
Residents who left Tal Afar last week told Reuters the militants looked exhausted.
“(Fighters) have been using tunnels to move from place to place to avoid air strikes,” said 60-year-old Haj Mahmoud, a retired teacher. “Their faces looked desperate and broken.”
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.