Government forces breached the city limits of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq on Tuesday on the third day of a US-backed offensive to seize it back from the Daish militants.
Tal Afar, a longtime Daish stronghold, is the latest objective in the war following the recapture of Mosul after a nine-month campaign that left much of that city in ruins.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking just before arriving in Iraq on Tuesday, said the fight against the Daish was far from over despite recent successes by the Western-backed government. The rebels remain in control of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
On Tuesday, however, army and counter-terrorism units broke into Tal Afar from the eastern and southern sides, the Iraqi joint operations command said.
About three quarters of the city remain under militant control, including the Ottoman-era citadel in its centre, according to an operational map published by the Iraqi military.
The main forces involved are the Iraqi army, air force, Federal Police, the US-trained Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), as well as units from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), who began encircling the city on Sunday.
Located 80km west of Mosul, Tal Afar is strategic as it lies along the supply route between Mosul and Syria. It has produced some of Daish’s most senior commanders and was cut off from the rest of the Daish-held territory in June.
Up to 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in Tal Afar, according to US and Iraqi military commanders. “The Daish days are certainly numbered, but it is not over yet and it is not going to be over anytime soon,” Mattis told reporters in Amman.
As was the case with the battle for Mosul, aid organisations groups are concerned about the plight of civilians in Tal Afar.
US Brigadier General Andrew Croft, chief of coalition air operations over Iraq, said between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians remained in Tal Afar. Up to 20,000 are thought to remain in the surrounding areas, but aid agencies say these are just estimates as they have been without access to Tal Afar since 2014.
Waves of civilians have fled the city and villages under cover of darkness over the past few weeks. Those remaining are threatened with death by the militants, who have held a tight grip there since 2014. About 30,000 have fled Tal Afar since April, according to the United Nations.
In Geneva, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said those fleeing this week were suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, having lived off unclean water and bread for the past three to four months.
“Many talk of seeing bodies along the way, and there are reports that some were killed by extremist groups,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said. “Others appear to have died due to dehydration or illnesses.”
People were also arriving at camps with wounds from sniper fire and exploding mines, he said.
Several thousand civilians are believed to have been killed in the battle for Mosul, where the Daish tried to keep them in areas it controlled to act as human shields against air strikes and artillery bombardments.