Iraqi forces swept Islamic State fighters from the north-west city of Tal Afar Thursday, liberating the last remaining IS stronghold in Nineveh province and a strategically important crossroads between the Syrian border and Mosul.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the city “liberated” Thursday following a brief ten-day ground operation with heavy backing from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
The civilian cost of the blistering campaign has yet to be accounted for by U.S. forces, but has been a source for concern among human rights groups and monitors.
Ahead of the breakneck operation, aid groups warned coalition forces to avoid using similar tactics witnessed during Mosul’s months-long campaign, which killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced over half a million more.
The U.N. said last week that as many as 30,000 civilians had fled Tal Afar due to the fighting, and that they didn’t know how many civilians remained, but that food and water had become increasingly scarce.
Tal Afar had been under ISIS control since June 2014.
The Department of Defense called it a “stunning victory” in a statement released Thursday. Yet U.S. officials emphasized that “dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts so they do not threaten the security of Tal Afar in the future.”
Abadi also took Thursday’s victory as an opportunity to warn ISIS fighters still holding out in Iraq.
“We say to the criminals of Daesh: Wherever you are, we are coming for liberation, and you have no choice but to die or surrender,”Abadi said in an official statement.
So far, Iraqi forces have managed to clear most of Iraq’s major cities from ISIS fighters. But the terror group still has forces spread throughout the country in various smaller pockets, most notably the city of Hawija in Kirkuk Province, which Iraqi commanders have said will be the next target.