Iraqi forces ramp up efforts against Daesh in Al Ayadiya town near Tal Afar would mean Daesh is dislodged from all but a few Iraqi towns.
Iraqi forces battling to retake the small town of Al Ayadiya where militants fleeing Tal Afar have entrenched themselves, saying on Tuesday the fighting is “multiple times worse” than the battle for Mosul’s old city.
Hundreds of battle-hardened fighters were positioned inside most houses and high buildings inside the town, making it difficult for government forces to make any progress, army officers said.
Iraqi government troops captured the town of Mosul from Daesh in June, but only after eight months of grinding urban warfare.
But one Iraqi officer, Colonel Kareem al Lami, described breaching the militants' first line of defence in Al Ayadiya as like opening "the gates of hell."
Iraqi forces have in recent days recaptured almost all of the northwestern city of Tal Afar, long a stronghold of Daesh.
They have been waiting to take Al Ayadiya, just 11 km northwest of the city, before declaring complete victory.
Tough resistance from the militants in Al Ayadiya has forced the Iraqi forces to increase the number of air strikes, as well as bring in reinforcements from the federal police to boost units from the army, air force, Federal Police, the elite US-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and some units from the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Up to 2,000 battle-hardened militants were believed to be defending Tal Afar against around 50,000 government troops last week.
Military intelligence indicated that many militants fled Tal Afar to mount a staunch defense in Al Ayadiya. Many motorcycles carrying Daesh insignia were seen abandoned at the side of the road outside Al Ayadiya.
Though the exact numbers of militants on the ground in Al Ayadiya was still unclear, al Lami, the Iraqi Army colonel, estimated they were in their "hundreds."
"Daesh fighters in their hundreds are taking positions inside almost every single house in the town," he said.
Sniper shots, mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-armored projectiles were fired from every single house, he added.
"We thought the battle for Mosul's Old City was tough, but this one proved to be multiple times worst," al Lami said. "We are facing tough fighters who have nothing to lose and are ready to die."
Two army officers told Reuters that no significant advances had yet been made in Al Ayadiya. They said they were waiting for artillery and air strikes to undermine the militants power.
The extra Federal Police troops that were called in said late on Tuesday that they had controlled 50 percent of the town, deploying snipers on the high buildings and intensified shelling the militants headquarters with rockets, a federal police spokesman said in a statement.
Tal Afar became the next target of the US-backed war on the terrorist group following the recapture of Mosul, where it had declared its "caliphate" over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Evacuation deal sparks outrage
As the battle against Daesh continues in Iraq, a deal allowing Daesh fighters to evacuate a Syrian-Lebanese frontier region towards the Iraqi border was denounced by Iraq.
Hundreds of militants started leaving the area on Monday, heading by bus for Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which borders Iraq and is the only Syrian province still under Daesh control.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al Abadi said Tuesday the deal was "unacceptable" and an "insult to the Iraqi people."
He said Iraq was fighting the terrorist group, not sending them to Syria.
Abadi has said Iraqi forces expect to announce victory in the city of Tal Afar within days.
That would see it dislodged from all but a few scattered Iraqi towns, including several close to the border with Syria's Deir Ezzor.
Local media reports say the evacuation could allow a "restructuring and re-organisation of Daesh, throwing them into a new battle against Iraq."