Iraqi warplanes carried out airstrikes against Islamic State group positions in Tal Afar on Tuesday, in preparation for a ground assault to retake the town near the Syrian border, the military said.
Tal Afar is the main remaining IS stronghold in northern Iraq, after the capture of second city Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces in July, effectively marking the collapse of IS’ self-proclaimed “caliphate”.
“Preparations are under way pending instructions from the commander in chief (Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi)” for the launch of the assault, said Yahiya Rassul, a spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operation Command (JOC).
Rassul said that although the main offensive to retake Tal Afar had not yet begun, the air force was pounding militant positions in the town.
Plans to retake Tal Afar were announced on Monday by federal police chief Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, who said “armoured and elite units” were headed for the town.
The units, whose number has not been specified, were “regrouping in combat positions in preparation for the next battle”, he said in a statement.
Joining them is the Hashd al-Shaabi, a Shia-dominated coalition of paramilitary units deployed since 2014 to halt IS’ advance.
“Hashd al-Shaabi commanders met Saturday with army and police commanders to decide on the plan to free Tal Afar,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesperson for the militia coalition.
Abadi is expected to announce the launch of the ground assault but there are no indications on when it is due to start.
Tal Afar is known as a Turkman-majority town with around 200,000 residents.
Before the town fell to the Islamic State group it experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Tal Afar has also produced some of IS’ most senior commanders.
Earlier this month, a senior Iraqi general predicted a relatively easy victory for his forces, saying that around 2,000 fighters and their families were still in Tal Afar but “worn out and demoralised”.