Islamic State Is Digging Trenches and Preparing For Battle
Iraqi forces close in on Tal Afar
Islamic State fighters have reportedly begun digging trenches in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar ahead of a planned offensive by Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi military is fresh from a hard-won battle for the city of Mosul, which both Iraqi troops and supporting U.S.-led coalition spent years trying to retake.
In July 2017, Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadis declared victory over ISIS. But the militants digging in around Tal Afar are a reminder that the war on ISIS is far from over.
The campaign for Mosul was slow and painful for Baghdad. Militants marched into the city in the summer of 2014 and promptly set about fortifying both it and the surrounding countryside. Kurdish peshmerga troops moved to build their own fortifications outside the city. The result was a long standoff with Islamist militants as the Iraqi army and Iranian-back militias slowly marched on Mosul from the south.
Iraqi army major general Najm Al Jabouri said he predicts the upcoming offensive to recapture Tal Afar will be “easy.” Al Jabouri insisted that the militants are fatigued and demoralized after their defeat in Mosul. “I don’t expect it will be a fierce battle, even though the enemy is surrounded,” he told Reuters.
We’ve heard such claims before. In July 2014, Kurdish troops retook the Iraqi Christian town of Hamdaniyah — 10 minutes by car from Mosul — and told reporters they were holding back ISIS. Not long after, militants again captured Hamdaniya and pushed into the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar, beginning the bloody genocide that would finally force the Americans to intervene.
Oil burns near Qayyarah, Iraq in 2016. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Despite fighting against the Iraqi government, the Kurdish Regional Government, the U.S.-led multinational coalition and Iranian-backed paramilitary groups, ISIS endured.
Iranian-backed forces, which have played a key role in the campaign against ISIS, are already taking the lead in the fight for Tal Afar. Last week members of the Hashd Al Shaabi took control of 17 villages between Mosul and Tal Afar. According to Iraqi media, militia forces cleared the road linking areas west of Mosul to the southeast of Tal Afar.
Iranian-backed Shia groups allegedly looted and raped civilians and executed prisoners on their march toward Mosul and during the battle itself. Kurdish commanders told War Is Boring’s correspondents they distrusted Shia forces and worried that Iranian agents might incite sectarian conflict. Although many Mosul residents hate ISIS and the harsh laws it imposed, some — Sunnis, in particular — remain deeply mistrustful of their liberators.
The battle for Tal Afar will be an important one. It will test the resolve and skill of Iraqi forces. It will also test the Iraqi government’s ability to regain the trust of Sunnis that it had largely abandoned.
But even then, ISIS is likely to melt into the countryside to continue the war. It stubbornly refuses to die.