Iraqi forces start offensive to take back IS-held city of Tal Afar

(Reuters) - Iraqi security forces launched on Sunday an offensive to take back the city of Tal Afar, their next objective in the U.S.-backed campaign to defeat Islamic State militants, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said.

"You either surrender, or die," Abadi said in a televised speech announcing the offensive, addressing the militants.

A longtime stronghold of hardline Sunni insurgents, Tal Afar, 50 miles (80 km) west of Mosul, was cut off from the rest of the Islamic State-held territory in June.

The city is surrounded by Iraqi government troops and Shi'ite volunteers in the south, and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the north.

About 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in the city, according to U.S. and Iraqi military commanders.

They are expected to put up a tough fight, even though intelligence from inside the city indicates they have been exhausted by months of combat, aerial bombardments, and by the lack of fresh supplies.

Hours before Abadi's announcement, the Iraqi air force dropped leaflets over the city telling the population to take their precautions. "Prepare yourself, the battle is imminent and the victory is coming, God willing," they read.

Islamic State's self-proclaimed "caliphate" effectively collapsed last month, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces completed the takeover of the militants' capital in Iraq, Mosul, after a nine-month campaign.

But parts of Iraq and Syria remain under its control, including Tal Afar, a city with a pre-war population of about 200,000.

Tal Afar experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has produced some of Islamic State's most senior commanders.

Waves of civilians have fled the city and surrounding villages under cover of darkness over the past weeks, although several thousand are estimated to remain, threatened with death by the militants who have held a tight grip there since 2014.

Residents who left Tal Afar last week told Reuters the militants looked exhausted.

"(Fighters) have been using tunnels to move from place to place to avoid air strikes," said 60-year-old Haj Mahmoud, a retired teacher. "Their faces looked desperate and broken."

The main forces taking part in the offensive are the Iraqi army, Federal Police and the elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), Iraqi commanders told Reuters.

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), some of which are trained and armed by Iran, said they will also take part in the battle. Their involvement is likely to worry Turkey, which claims an affinity with the area's predominantly ethnic Turkmen population.

The U.S.-led coalition said over the past days it had carried out dozens of air strikes on Tal Afar, targeting weapons depots and command centers, in preparation for the ground assault.

"Intelligence gathered shows clearly that the remaining fighters are mainly foreign and Arab nationals with their families and that means they will fight until the last breath," Colonel Kareem al-Lami, from the Iraqi army's 9th Division, told Reuters earlier this week.

But Lami said Tal Afar's open terrain and wide streets will allow tanks and armored vehicles easy passage. Only one part of Tal Afar, Sarai, is comparable to Mosul's Old City, where Iraqi troops were forced to advance on foot through narrow streets moving house-to-house in a battle that resulted in the near total destruction of the historic district.

The United Nation's International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimates that about 10,000 to 40,000 people are left in Tal Afar and surrounding villages. Aid groups say they are not expecting a huge civilian exodus as most the city's former residents have already left.

RELATED: Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service works to recapture Mosul from ISIS

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Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service works to recapture Mosul from ISIS
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Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service works to recapture Mosul from ISIS
Members of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) advance in the Old City of Mosul on July 5, 2017, during the government forces' ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian population has made for an extremely difficult fight. / AFP PHOTO / Fadel SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) advance through Mosul's Old City on July 6, 2017, during the offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces battled the last remaining jihadists in Mosul's Old City, where the UN said up to 20,000 civilians are trapped and in 'extreme danger'. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) raises the victory gesture as others hold upside-down the black flag of the Islamic State (IS) group, outside the destroyed Al-Nuri Mosque in the Old City of Mosul, after the area was retaken from IS, on June 30, 2017. Explosions on June 21 evening levelled the mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his first sermon as leader of the Islamic State group and its ancient minaret. Iraq will declare victory in the eight-month battle to retake second city Mosul from jihadists in the 'next few days,' a senior commander said on June 30, 2017. Iraqi forces launched the gruelling battle for Mosul on October 17, 2016, advancing to the city and retaking its eastern side before setting their sights on the smaller but more densely populated west. / AFP PHOTO / FADEL SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A member of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) advances in the Old City of Mosul on July 5, 2017, during the government forces' ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian population has made for an extremely difficult fight. / AFP PHOTO / Fadel SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Civilians flee as members of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) advance in the Old City of Mosul on July 5, 2017, during the government forces' ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian population has made for an extremely difficult fight. / AFP PHOTO / Fadel SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) advances in the Old City of Mosul on July 5, 2017, during the government forces' ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian population has made for an extremely difficult fight. / AFP PHOTO / Fadel SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) stands outside a doorway while advancing in the Old City of Mosul on July 5, 2017, during the government forces' ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian population has made for an extremely difficult fight. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) climbs through a hole in a wall while advancing in the Old City of Mosul on July 5, 2017, during the government forces' ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian population has made for an extremely difficult fight. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) holds a position in the Old City of Mosul on July 5, 2017, during the government forces' ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian population has made for an extremely difficult fight. / AFP PHOTO / Fadel SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Civilians flee as members of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) advance in the Old City of Mosul on July 5, 2017, during the government forces' ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but the terrain combined with a large civilian population has made for an extremely difficult fight. / AFP PHOTO / Fadel SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
A member Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) rests inside a house in the Maidan district in Mosul's Old City on July 4, 2017, during the ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) advance inside a house in the Maidan district in Mosul's Old City on July 4, 2017, during the ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) stand guard next to Mosul's destroyed ancient leaning minaret, known as the 'Hadba' (Hunchback), in the Old City of Mosul on July 4, 2017, during the ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. / AFP PHOTO / Fadel SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) uses a cell-phone while sitting outside the door of a humvee in the vicinity of the destroyed Al-Nuri mosque in the Old City of Mosul on July 2, 2017, during the offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) advance inside a house in the Maidan district in Mosul's Old City on July 4, 2017, during the ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - An Iraqi flag waves as it hangs outside a Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) humvee driving past the destroyed Al-Nuri Mosque in the Old City of Mosul on July 2, 2017 during the Iraqi government forces' offensive to retake the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Explosions on the evening of June 21, 2017 levelled the mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his first sermon as leader of the Islamic State group, along with its ancient minaret. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) poses for a picture in a skeleton-defaced ski-mask, as Iraqi forces advance towards the Old City of Mosul on June 20, 2017 during the ongoing offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the last district still held by the Islamic State (IS) group. / AFP PHOTO / Ahmad al-Rubaye (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service smokes a waterpipe (narjileh or shisha) while on a break, during the advance towards the Old City of Mosul on June 19, 2017 as the ongoing offensive continues to retake the last district still held by the Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces pushed deeper into Mosul's Old City after launching a final assault on the Islamic State group, warning civilians to stay inside and telling jihadists to 'surrender or die'. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (Photo credit should read MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) sniper takes a shot during the advance towards the Grand Mosque of Nuri in the Old City of Mosul on June 29, 2017, as the offensive by Iraqi forces continues to retake the last district still held by the Islamic State (IS) group. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) rest and regroup while advancing towards the Grand Mosque of Nuri in the Old City of Mosul on June 29, 2017, during the ongoing offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the last district still held by the Islamic State (IS) group. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service waves as another holds a cell while on a break, during the advance towards the Old City of Mosul on June 19, 2017 as the ongoing offensive continues to retake the last district still held by the Islamic State (IS) group fighters. Iraqi forces pushed deeper into Mosul's Old City after launching a final assault on the Islamic State group, warning civilians to stay inside and telling jihadists to 'surrender or die'. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (Photo credit should read MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
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(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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