Iraqi forces recaptured the first three districts of the Daesh stronghold on the third day of a US-backed offensive amidst an exodus of civilians from the city.

Iraqi troops launched an offensive Sunday to recapture Tal Afar, once a key Daesh supply hub between Mosul and the Syrian border to the west.
Iraqi troops launched an offensive Sunday to recapture Tal Afar, once a key Daesh supply hub between Mosul and the Syrian border to the west. (AFP)

Government forces breached the city limits of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq on Tuesday on the third day of a US-backed offensive to seize it back from Daesh militants.

Tal Afar, a longtime Daesh stronghold, is the latest objective in the war following the recapture of Mosul after a nine-month campaign that left much of that city in ruins.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking just before arriving in Iraq on Tuesday, said the fight against Daesh was far from over despite recent successes by the Western-backed government. 

The militants remain in control of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria.

On Tuesday, however, army and counter-terrorism units and militias broke into Tal Afar from the eastern and southern sides, the Iraqi joint operations command said.

Security officials said the Al Kifah, Al Nur and Al Askari districts were now under "full control" of forces fighting Daesh,

About three-quarters of the city remain under militant control, including the Ottoman-era citadel in its centre, according to an operational map published by the Iraqi military.

Located 80 km (50 miles) west of Mosul, Tal Afar is strategic as it lies along the supply route between Mosul and Syria. It was cut off from the rest of Daesh-held territory in June.

Up to 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in Tal Afar, according to US and Iraqi military commanders.

"ISIS' (Daesh's) days are certainly numbered, but it is not over yet and it is not going to be over anytime soon," Mattis told reporters in Amman.

Civilians in danger

As was the case with the battle for Mosul, aid organisations are concerned about the plight of civilians in Tal Afar.

US Brigadier General Andrew Croft, chief of coalition air operations over Iraq, said between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians remained in Tal Afar. Up to 20,000 are thought to remain in the surrounding areas, but aid agencies say these are just estimates as they have been without access to Tal Afar since 2014.

Waves of civilians have fled the city and villages under cover of darkness over the past few weeks. Those remaining are threatened with death by the militants, who have held a tight grip there since 2014. About 30,000 have fled Tal Afar since April, according to the United Nations.

In Geneva, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said those fleeing this week were suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, having lived off unclean water and bread for the past three to four months.

"Many talk of seeing dead bodies along the way, and there are reports that some were killed by extremist groups," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said. "Others appear to have died due to dehydration or illnesses."

People were also arriving at camps with wounds from sniper fire and exploding mines, he said.

Several thousand civilians are believed to have been killed in the battle for Mosul, where Daesh tried to keep them in areas it controlled to act as human shields against air strikes and artillery bombardments.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies