Iraq launches assault to retake Tal Afar from IS

Popular Mobilization Units fighters ride on the back of a truck on their way to fight against Islamic State militants in the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul Iraq

Popular Mobilization Units fighters ride on the back of a truck on their way to fight against Islamic State militants in the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul Iraq

Iraqi forces on Sunday pounded the Islamic State group in Tal Afar, one of its last bastions in the country, in a new assault just weeks after ousting IS from second city Mosul.

The US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria welcomed the start of the offensive and pledged support to Iraqi forces involved.

"So I would - there is, you know, some significance, where it is in relation to the border with Syria, and Tal Afar has been for some time a - one of the last places prior to moving in and out of Syria", Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon said last week.

In a televised speech announcing the offensive overnight, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the jihadists had the choice between "surrender or die".

The United Nation's International Organization for Migration, estimates that about 10,000 to 40,000 people are left in Tal Afar and surrounding villages.

Tal Afar s Shiites were directly targeted by IS, while some members of its Sunni minority joined the jihadists and went on to form a contingent with a particularly brutal reputation.

The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande, described the situation inside Tal Afar as "very tough", with food and water running out and many lacking basic necessities.

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. "They are arriving exhausted and dehydrated", Grande said in a statement.

Iraqi warplanes have bombarded IS positions in the city for several days, in preparation for ground operations.

Hours before Abadi's announcement, the Iraqi air force dropped leaflets over the city telling the population to take their precautions.

The authorities said they had set up a radio station to keep residents informed of developments. Many senior leaders of ISIL and al-Qaeda in Iraq were from Tal Afar.

IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces have since regained much of the territory. Once Tal Afar is retaken, Iraqi authorities intend to turn their sights south to launch a fight to retake jihadist- held Hawijah, in the province of Kirkuk, 300 kilometres (185 miles) northwest of Baghdad.

Jihadists also still hold areas of Anbar, a western province that borders Syria and faces major security challenges.

Russia-supported Syrian troops have nearly entirely encircled IS in Syria s central desert region, and the jihadists are also facing twin assaults from the Lebanese army and Shiite movement Hezbollah on the Lebanon-Syrian border.

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