Iraq’s government declared on Thursday that the northern city of Tal Afar and the rest of Nineveh province had been “fully liberated” from the Islamic State after two weeks of heavy fighting for one of the last major ISIS strongholds in the country.
“Our happiness is complete, victory has arrived and the province of Nineveh is now entirely in the hands of our forces,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement. “We say to the Islamic State fighters: wherever you are, we are coming for you and you have no choice but to surrender or die.”
The announcement followed the Iraqi forces’ victory over jihadists in al-Ayadiya, a small town adjacent to Tal Afar, where several hundred jihadists fled after defeat in the city. Abadi said Iraqi forces had “eliminated and smashed [ISIS] terrorists” who were hiding in the town.
Federal Police Chief Major-General Raed Jawdat said dozens of families had been evacuated from the town, and were transferred to displaced person’s camps where they were provided humanitarian aid, Kurdistan 24 reported.
The loss of Nineveh province dealt a serious blow to the jihadists, who used Tal Afar’s strategic position to smuggle oil and collect significant taxes. However, governing the liberated areas won’t be easy for Baghdad, Dlawer Ala-Aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute, warned in his interview with Al Jazeera.
“When you get rid of the last stronghold you pay the way for reconstruction, reconciliation and all the process of recovery, as well as people getting to their houses,” Ala-Aldeen said. “But actually that is it, because the next is the biggest challenge: providing security and services and dealing with the many armed groups.”
Although officials with the US-led coalition said the recapture of Tal Afar would spell the end of ISIL in northern Iraq, many echoed Ala-Aladeen’s words, cautioning that ISIL still needed to be “pushed out of every pocket it holds”. The number of these pockets is likely to be blurred in the following months, as the jihadists move to rural areas and blend in.
“While the city and critical infrastructure are under ISF control, 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,” said the statement from Operation Inherent Resolve command.
Iraqi forces are now setting their sights on other ISIS strongholds, including Hawija, a town in Kirkuk province around 300km north of Baghdad, as well as Anbar desert in the south near the border with Syria and Saudi Arabia.
“ISIL in Hawija and the Kirkuk area are actually more prominent, more visible and provoking greater excursions and reactions,” Ala-Aldeen told Al Jazeera.
Iraqi forces have driven ISIS from most of Iraq’s major towns and cities seized by the militants in the summer of 2014, including Mosul, which was retaken after a nine-month campaign.