Joy and Concern as Pupils Return to School in Mosul

Mosul- After three years of forced truancy due to ISIS’ seizure of the Iraqi city of Mosul, teenager Ali Salem waited nervously outside school to sit an English exam.

Before heading out bright and early from a camp for the displaced in Hajj Ali, 60 kilometers away, he had had a last look over lessons that were interrupted in 2014.

“On the evening of June 10, 2014, we heard that ISIS had taken over the city. I had a maths exam the next day but school stopped,” Salem told Agence France Presse in front of the gate of the school in west Mosul’s Mansour district.

“I’m 18 now and I’ve lost three years because of ISIS. I’m so glad we’re back at school to be able to pass exams because all this will determine the course of my life,” he said, with disheveled hair and a schoolbag strapped across his shoulder.

Because of the disruption for the 300,000 pupils in Niniveh province of which Mosul is the capital, the education ministry has decided to set IQ tests for primary schools and general knowledge exams in secondary.

A block of houses away, also in the Mansour district, next to a building toppled by an air strike, another pupil was waiting anxiously to take the same English exam.

“I’ve forgotten everything, and I’ve only managed to get a photocopy of one chapter whereas they can question me on the whole book,” fretted Mahmud Abdel Nafaa, also 18, as workmen laboured to fix drains and pavements smashed by shelling.

“I’m really happy to be back at school but also worried because if I fail the exams I will be transferred to evening classes,” said the young man in a red T-shirt and with black slicked-back hair.

Abdel Nafaa said evening classes were held only twice a week, and they have become mandatory for pupils deemed too old to follow the syllabus.

The new academic year started in early October in the eastern part of the city, from where Iraqi security forces expelled ISIS militants in January.

But classes and exams will not resume in earnest until the start of November in west Mosul, where the battle dragged on until July.

Mosul’s education system, with its pre-war tally of 600 schools, has paid a high price for the months-long fight.

Only 210 schools are left standing on the east bank of the Tigris river that runs through the city, and 100 on its west bank.

In his office building with its completely burnt-out ground floor, the director general of the education ministry for Niniveh province faces a mammoth task.

“We’re the second line after the armed forces. They liberate, and we have to rehabilitate right after,” Wahid Abdel Qader said.

“Already back in January, when the east had barely been liberated, we noted that families were eager for school to restart,” he said.

But with bombardments rocking the west, schools in the east waited until May and June to gradually restore classes.

Mohammed Ismail, headmaster of the Zubayda school in east Mosul, said he languished at home for three years.

“In our district, only one school stayed open,” under ISIS supervision, he said. 

“Some of my colleagues worked with them,” he said, adding most of the pupils under ISIS were French, Russian and Chechen children of foreign militants.

In the playground of the Zeitoun school overlooking the east bank of the Tigris, six-year-old Yussef Razwan showed off his first reading book. 

“Playing at home is boring. I prefer being here,” the little boy in white uniform beamed.

Iraqi Court Sentences Russian ISIS Extremist to Death

ISIS

The Central Criminal Court in Baghdad sentenced to death on Tuesday a Russian member of the ISIS terrorist group.

An official spokesman for the Higher Judicial Council Judge Abdulsattar Birqader announced in a statement that the detainee will be hanged “after confessing to carrying out terrorist operations against security agencies since 2015.”

He revealed that the extremist is a member of the so-called al-Zarqawi Brigade, which is one of the armed branches of ISIS.

The Russian terrorist was arrested by security forces during the liberation of the western side of the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

The city had since been liberated from ISIS after a nine-month offensive.

Iraqi Government Holds 1400 Wives, Children of Foreign ISIS Militants

Families and relatives of ISIS militants are see after they surrender themselves to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in al-Ayadiya, northwest of Tal Afar

Mosul – Iraqi authorities are holding 1,400 foreign wives and children of suspected ISIS militants, according to security and aid officials.

Iraqi army and intelligence officers told Reuters that most of the wives were from former Soviet states, such as Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Russia, as well as few from France and Germany.

Iraqi authorities are holding the wives and children at an Iraqi camp south of Mosul and most of them arrived there on August 30, after Iraqi troops expelled the terrorist group from Mosul, one of its remaining strongholds in Iraq.

An intelligence officer stated that the forces are still verifying their nationalities with their home countries, especially that many of the women no longer had their original documents.

Mosul’s Nineveh operation command Army Colonel Ahmed al-Taie declared that the forces are holding ISIS’ families under strong security measures while they wait for government orders on how to deal with them.

“We treat them well. They are families of tough criminals who killed innocents in cold blood,” Taie said, adding that when they interrogated the women they discovered that almost all of them were misled by a vicious ISIS propaganda.

Reuters reporters saw hundreds of the women and children sitting on mattresses with bugs in tents without air-conditioning in what aid workers described as a “military site”.

They also noticed that Turkish, French and Russian were among the languages spoken.

A French speaking Chechen origin veiled woman stated that she wants to go back to France but doesn’t know how. She said she did not know what had happened to her husband, who had brought her to Iraq when he joined ISIS adding that she used to live in Paris.

According to a security officer, most of women and children and their husbands surrendered to Peshmerga forces near Tal Afar, north Mosul. Peshmerga forces then handed the women and children over to Iraqi forces but kept the men in their custody presuming they were militants.

Most of Tal Afar’s 200,000 residents fled the city prior to its liberation from ISIS control by the Iraqi forces.

An interior ministry official said Iraq wanted to contact the embassies of the women and children and discuss their return conditions, adding that they can’t keep this number in their custody for a long time.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Salah Kareem declared that so far there are at least 13 nationalities among the women.

Aid workers and authorities are worried about tensions between Iraqis who lost their living in the camp after they lost their homes and the new arrivals.

An Iraqi military intelligence officer declared that they are keeping the families in the camp for their own safety especially that many Iraqis seek revenge for the harsh treatment they received under ISIS control.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which supports 541 women and their children, announced that Iraq must swiftly move to clarify its future plans for these individuals.

In a statement issued, NRC declared that it is imperative that these individuals are able to access protection, assistance, and information.

“They are in de-facto detention,” the statement added.

Western officials are worried that radicalized fighters and their relatives will return to their home countries after the collapse of ISIS. Meanwhile, French officials indicated they would prefer for any ISIS-affiliated citizens to be prosecuted in Iraq.

Last month, a French diplomatic source told Reuters that the general philosophy is that adults should go on trial in Iraq, while children would benefit from judicial and social services in France.

A French woman of Algerian origins, 27, said that even her mother doesn’t know where she was. She said she had been tricked by her husband into coming with him to Iraq through Turkey and Syria when he joined ISIS last year.

Holding her infant, the woman asked to remain anonymous, said her husband had told her they were going for a vacation week in Turkey and had already bought the plane tickets and made hotel reservations.

After four months in Mosul, she ran away from her husband to Tal Afar in February. She was hoping to make it back to France but he found her and would not let her leave.

She tearfully recounted how her five-year-old son was killed in June by a rocket while playing on the streets.

The woman said she doesn’t care anymore whether her husband is dead or alive.

After walking for days, she and a few other families surrendered at a Peshmerga checkpoint near al-Ayadiyah, a town near Tal Afar.

Kurdish officials said dozens of fighters surrendered after the fall of Tal Afar without adding further details. A Tal Afar resident said that during the final days of the battle he had seen between 70 and 80 fighters fleeing the town.

Mosul…City of Ancient Treasures

Mosul

Baghdad – The city of Mosul, which was declared ISIS-free on July 10, is the second largest city of Iraq and is known with its historic fabrics and treasures.

ISIS seized control of Mosul (350 km north of Baghdad) through a lightening attack in June 2014. Ensuing heavy fights between the extremists and Iraqi forces partially destroyed the city.

Mosul, through which runs the Tigris River, is the largest city in the oil-rich Nineveh province in northern Iraq, and was completely recaptured by Iraqi forces in August.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the city located in a region dominated by a Kurdish population, where Turkmen, Shi’ites, Christians and other minorities also live.

Mosul is located at the crossroads of a highway network in northern Iraq, linking Iraq to Syria in the west and to Turkey in the north.

The city was famous for the production of “muslin”, a type of cotton fabric. It is also known for its archaeological sites and gardens before becoming a field of daily violence after the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Since July 2014, ISIS destroyed Shi’ite mosques and tombs, some of which were built centuries ago. Mots notable of these landmarks was the shrine of the Prophet Younis.

Destroyed in the battles and bombardments in the center of the city was the Nuri Mosque and its minaret dating back to the 12th century.

Extremists also burned thousands of books and manuscripts found in the great heritage museum in Mosul.

History of Mosul

Muslims entered the city of Mosul in 641, which became an important commercial center in the region, where caravans met between the Levant and Persia. The city reached the peak of its prosperity in the 12th century before falling in the hands of the Mongols in 1262. Then the rule moved to the Persians and Ottomans.

In 1918, Britain joined this oil-rich region to Iraq, which at the time was under British mandate. This angered France, which sought to join Mosul to Syria, which was under its mandate. Turkey objected to this move, but the League of Nations approved it in 1925.

In the late 20th century, Mosul was considered one of the main strongholds of Iraqis supporting toppled President Saddam Hussein. After that, Iraq fell into chaos, which saw it fall under ISIS hands before the terror group was expelled from it.

Iraq Faces Vast Challenges despite Victories over ISIS

Baghdad- Iraq’s victory over ISIS in Tal Afar was the latest in a string of gains against the group, but Iraqi forces still face massive challenges, experts say.

In 2014, as ISIS staged a rapid advance across northern Iraq, police and military personnel abandoned their posts to the militants with barely a fight.

That allowed the group to seize territory in parts of Syria and a third of Iraq’s territory including second city Mosul.

Today, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who took office three months after the 2014 military debacle, says the Iraqi state is back, stronger and better organized.

Under the Shi’ite premier’s command and backed by a US-led multinational coalition, Iraqi forces have retaken Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and in July, after a grueling nine-month battle, Mosul.

“Our battle plans are now being taught in military academies, including tactics for urban guerrilla warfare and demining,” interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan told Agence France Presse.

Andrew A. Croft, deputy commander of the US-led coalition, praised Iraqi forces for their achievements.

“The fight would have challenged almost any army in the world. The fact that the Iraqis could do it has given their security forces additional confidence,” he told AFP.

“They have shown themselves to be capable to maneuver against ISIS in all locations in Iraq.”

During the fight for Mosul, described by an American general in Baghdad as “the toughest urban battle since World War II”, Iraqi troops suffered heavy losses.

But they have now forced ISIS out of all its Iraqi territories except the town of Hawija, 300 kilometers north of Baghdad, and a few pockets of territory near the border with Syria.

In doing so, they have repaired some of the damage done three years ago and regained “the confidence of their fellow citizens and internationally”, said Jassem Hanoun, an Iraqi military expert.

But Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari warned on August 26 that “victory in Iraq will not mean an end to the danger posed by ISIS”.

He said Iraq would continue its military cooperation with the coalition, saying it needed “preventive security” against “terrorist cells working in the shadows”.

Hanoun said ISIS would likely go back to its “original mode of operation”, attacking targets such as residential districts and markets.

But a lack of coordination and organization means the security services struggle to cope with such attacks, he said.

The question of whether and how the coalition will continue to operate in Iraq is a hot political topic both for Baghdad and for Washington, which in 2011 finally withdrew its troops eight years after leading an invasion of the country.

Cooperation with the US poses a pressing dilemma: what will become of the Popular Mobilization Forces dominated by groups backed by Iran?

Most Shi’ite leaders call for PMF, currently under the command of the prime minister, to remain in its current form.

According to Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, professor of international history at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, the PMF “is only the most recent version of a national politico-security configuration that has been combined with a sectarian component since 2003”, he said.

The Iraq specialist said the PMF’s existence was an “admission of the failure of an army trained by US administrations at great financial and material cost over 14 years.”

Iraq Announces Security Plan Amid Fears of Terrorist Attacks during Adha

Baghdad – The Iraqi Interior Ministry and the Baghdad Operations Command have developed a security plan for Eid al-Adha that would cover cemeteries, markets, amusement parks and places of worship over fears of terrorist attacks that could target Iraqis and Baghdad residents in particular.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Saad Maan said during a press conference held at the ministry’s headquarters on Thursday that the plan was based on “securing protection for shopping areas, places of worship, entertainment and cemeteries in Baghdad.”

He added that the plan included “preventing the passage of motorcycles and vehicles in crowded places and the closure of some roads during the days of Eid.”

On a different note, Reuters reported that markets in eastern Mosul have returned to normal, packed with visitors as residents prepared to celebrate Eid al-Adha, which comes after the city was taken back from the grip of the ISIS.

People began to flow slowly back to the homes they had abandoned during nine months of war between Iraqi government forces and militants, hoping to restore the daily life they had before the fall of the city in the grip of the terrorist organization.

“This year’s Eid is better than last year,” Bassem Mohammed, a Mosul resident, said.

“ISIS has been expelled and people can celebrate again,” he added.

The United Nations estimates the initial cost of reconstructing Mosul at over one billion USD.

Iraqi Forces Retake Tal Afar Center, Citadel from ISIS

Iraqi forces have driven militants from central Tal Afar and its historic citadel, they said Saturday, placing them on the verge of fully recapturing one of the last ISIS strongholds in the country.

“Units of the Counter-Terrorism Service liberated the Citadel and Basatin districts and raised the Iraqi flag on top of the citadel,” operation commander General Abdulamir Yarallah said in a statement.

The CTS and federal police units had also seized three northern districts and the Al-Rabia neighborhood west of the citadel, a day after taking the district of Al-Talia to the south. 

Clashes were ongoing on the northern outskirts and Iraqi forces were dealing with final pockets of militants inside the city, Yarallah said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said that 70 percent of the city has been liberated. “God willing, the remaining part will be liberated soon,” he told a news conference with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and French Defense Minister Florence Parly, in Baghdad.

The Iraqi military also said Tal Afar is about to be fully captured.

The advance in Tal Afar, just days into an assault on the strategic town, comes six weeks after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the terrorist organization in second city Mosul.

Tal Afar sits on a strategic route between ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Mosul, 70 kilometers further east.

Officials have said they hope to announce victory in Tal Afar by Eid al-Adha that is set to start in Iraq on September 2.

The International Organization for Migration said “thousands of civilians” had fled Tal Afar since the offensive began.

Those who flee through desert areas face soaring temperatures for long periods, putting them at risk of dehydration, said the UNHCR and Viren Falcao of the Danish Refugee Council.

Up to 2,000 militants remain in Tal Afar, according to US and Iraqi military commanders. The number of civilians left in the city is between 10,000 and 20,000, according to the US military.

Once Tal Afar is retaken, Baghdad is expected to launch a new offensive on Hawija, 300 kilometers north of Baghdad.

Iraqi Forces Break through ISIS Lines in Tal Afar

Baghdad, Mosul- Iraqi government forces broke through ISIS’ lines inside Tal Afar on Friday, reaching the old city center and the neighborhood around the Ottoman-era citadel, according to a military statement.

On the sixth day of the offensive, elite Iraqi units seized the northern neighborhoods of Nida’, Taliaa, Uruba, Nasr, and Saad, according to a statement from the Iraqi Joint Operations Command (JOC), Reuters said.

The Iraqi forces have seized about three quarters of the city since the offensive started in the early hours of Aug. 20, according to the latest JOC map, published on Friday evening.

In its turn, Agence France Presse quoted the JOC as saying in a statement that “the Iraqi flag has been hoisted in Nasr district.”

“The troops are now at the entrance to the district of the citadel,” the JOC said.

Saad district was seized and forces were moving into Qadissiyah, it added.

After routing the militants from Iraq’s second city Mosul in July following a grueling nine-month-long battle, Iraqi forces launched an assault Sunday on Tal Afar, where an estimated 1,000 terrorists are holed up.

The attackers have faced an onslaught of suicide and car bomb assaults.

The International Organization for Migration said “thousands of civilians” had fled Tal Afar since the offensive began.

But around 30,000 civilians are trapped by the fighting, according to the United Nations.

Mosul Homes Turned into Graves after Victory over ISIS

Mosul, Iraq — Aya Abosh found her sister in the house where she spent her final moments, trapped with her boys as shells fell from the sky and caved in the roof.  
 
They were lying there, in the detritus of floral blankets and twisted railings. “Hammoudi,” Abosh said, somehow recognizing her 6-year-old nephew, Mahmoud. Recovery workers toiled around her, struggling to find a zipper on a body bag, then straining to wrap remains disfigured by trauma, time and sun. 

Sajjida, the sister, was 28 and devoted to God, Abosh said. Bakr, the other boy, was 9. In the heat and stench and swirling dust, Abosh quietly stared at the bodies before the workers spirited them away. It was early yet, and there were many more bodies to uncover in the Old City of Mosul. 

This was the site of Iraq’s landmark military victory just weeks ago that ended the ISIS extremist group’s wrenching occupation of Mosul and crippled the militants’ odious ambitions for the Middle East, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said. There were noisy, flag-waving celebrations, even as the prime minister reminded the nation that there had been “blood and sacrifices,” too.

Only now is the terrible cost of the victory emerging, in quarters of the Old City ground to rubble by airstrikes and shelling and suicide bombs. For under the barrage were thousands of homes packed with families. Hundreds of the houses were transformed into graves. 

With the rough estimates of the dead from the neighborhood reaching into the thousands, relatives have angrily questioned the way the battle was fought by Iraqi forces and their partners in the US-led military coalition, which carried out airstrikes in support. The concerns over civilian casualties have become more urgent as US-backed forces redouble their efforts to defeat ISIS in the militants’ final redoubts in Iraq and Syria.

Time after time in Mosul, civilians were killed in a similar, disturbing pattern: ISIS militants kidnapped families as human shields in houses that served as the fighters’ garrisons. Snipers took up positions on rooftops, firing at Iraqi troops or coalition planes. Then the houses were bombed, sometimes by artillery or airstrikes and with little apparent regard for the people inside, relatives and survivors said.

Basements used for shelter became tombs.

No one has said yet how many died here. Even estimates are a secret, closely held by a government sensitive to the charge that it attacked the neighborhood with terrifying force and not enough care. But there are grim clues.

At the local morgue, nearly 900 names are on a record of bodies pulled mostly from the Old City since June 24, an official there said. Civil defense workers have a list of 300 locations where bodies are waiting to be recovered, and they have reached only a little more than a third of those sites. 

In some of the houses, there is one body. In others, there are dozens. 

Hundreds of other victims were buried by their relatives during the fighting in gardens or makeshift cemeteries dug in empty lots. The local “refrigerators” at the main morgue in Mosul — two tractor-trailers parked on a lawn — are already full.

“Based on our figures,” said one Iraqi official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a taboo subject, “there are not enough refrigerators in all of Iraq.”

Mohammed Ali Mahmoud visited one of the Mosul morgues earlier this month, mingling with others carrying their own tragic tales. His was exceptional: Seventeen members of his extended family were killed in what he said was an airstrike in the Old City.

“They had no mercy. A sniper would fall with a bullet or a rocket. But to kill one sniper, seven houses were destroyed,” he said as another man entered the morgue to request death certificates for 15 members of his family, the victims of a different strike.

If the suffering of Mosul carried a lesson, it was that the government could not afford to disappoint the city’s residents ever again and stir the kind of complaints that militants had exploited. But at the morgue, the dead seemed forsaken among all the talk of victory and as luckier corners of Mosul burst back to life.

Their survivors struggled, too: to obtain documents for death benefits, to get medical care for their injuries and to shake the stain of suspicion that they said was attached to residents of the Old City, of sympathy with ISIS.

The Iraqi military said it made protecting civilians its priority at every stage of the difficult nine-month battle for Mosul, a city that once had nearly 2 million people, and delayed offensives out of an abundance of caution. 

“Liberation of people before liberation of the land,” was the troops’ refrain.

But there were warning signs that Iraqi and US forces might be less restrained as they reached the narrow confines of western Mosul where ISIS militants were making their last stand — even as it became clear the militants were increasingly hiding behind civilians. In late March, the coalition launched an airstrike against ISIS in the western Mosul al-Jadida neighborhood that killed at least 100 people. Residents said they had gathered in one of the targeted houses because it was one of the few in the area that had a basement.  

The growing concern about civilian deaths is not confined to Mosul. Civilian casualties have been rising across the battlefield against ISIS in Iraq and Syria because of coalition airstrikes, according to Airwars, a group that tracks the casualties — which it said have approximately doubled since President Trump took office.

US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting in Iraq and Syria, said the “coalition’s goal is always for zero human casualties. We apply rigorous standards to our targeting process.” 

He attributed allegations of rising civilian casualties in Iraq to the shift from eastern Mosul to the more densely populated terrain in the west of the city, rather than to any change in strategy. “Not since World War II has there been an urban assault on a city like Mosul,” he said. “The only way to liberate the city was to go house by house and street by street.” 

And it fell to Iraqi soldiers to rescue civilians, whose only hope was that security forces reached them “quickly enough before they starved to death or were killed by ISIS while trying to flee,” he said.

In late July, responding to what it said was “false” speculation about a high number of casualties, the Iraqi military released a partial tally, from western Mosul, saying 1,429 people had been killed. It was unclear whether that included the Old City, and the tally has not been updated since.  

For surviving relatives, the outrage over the deaths has been followed by the laborious and painful process of recovering the bodies. Relatives call the fatigued, underpaid civil defense workers for help or flag them down in the street. There is no grid search underway and no legion of sniffer dogs.

Instead, when the civil defense workers have time, they travel with the relatives to their houses, trudging together over rubble, boxes of ammunition or the explosive-laden corpses of dead ISIS militants.

One day this month, relatives were forced to help with the digging. No one had paid the man who operated the excavator, and as a result, he had not shown up for work in four days, according to Lt. Col. Rabia Hassan, the head of the civil defense team in western Mosul. 

It was not the fault of the excavator operator, who, for most of the recovery operation, had been paying for the work from his own pocket, Hassan said. “Nobody cares, and nobody asks,” he said.

Theirs was backbreaking and perilous work. At one point, smoke rose from an explosion about a block away. Everyone kept digging.
    
Aya Abosh sat near the rescue vehicles, with the body bags at her feet, sobbing as other relatives watched and waited for their turn. Mohamed Taha’s house was a few blocks away, and in it, he said, were the bodies of his 2-year-old son, his wife and his mother. He had last seen them months ago, when he left the Old City to check on his livestock. But then the battle lines shifted, and he never made it home.
 
For weeks, Yunis Sallou had been trying to extricate his uncle and three cousins, who were interred in his grandparents’ house. As they scraped at the rocks with their hands or with small shovels last week, the smell of the bodies drifted up from somewhere too far down to reach. 

Hala Khamis, the survivor of an airstrike more than a month ago, escaped the wreckage with three of her daughters but not Jassim, her 10-year-old son, who had been in a separate room. She returned to the house with the rescue workers last week, carrying Jassim’s first-grade photograph and a can of aerosol deodorant to ward off the smell. 

“To be honest, I am not sure he is here. He may have escaped,” she said, spritzing the clothes of the rescue workers with the deodorant as if that might speed up their work. A body was found, but it belonged to a militant with a suicide belt still wrapped around his waist. Khamis stumbled around the concrete, imploring the civil defense workers to keep trying. 

But there was too much rock and no machine to shift it. They would have to return. 

The strike that killed 17 people spared three members of the family. One of them, Ali Hussein Ali, 23, happened to walk out of the room where the family was sitting when the roof collapsed. 

He spent 22 hours in the rubble, hearing the voices of his relatives, he said. Half an hour before he was rescued, the voices stopped.

The Washington Post 

Airstrikes in Tal Afar Set Stage for Zero Hour

Iraqi and coalition warplanes carried out airstrikes Tuesday against ISIS targets in Tal Afar in preparation for a ground offensive to retake the northern town near the Syrian border, Iraq’s military said.

“Preparations are under way pending instructions from the commander in chief (Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi)” for the launch of the assault, said a spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operation Command (JOC).

Although the main offensive to retake Tal Afar had not yet begun, the air force was pounding militant positions in the town, the spokesman, Yahiya Rassul, said.

A series of airstrikes this week targeted ISIS headquarters, tunnels and weapons’ stores, Iraq’s air force commander Lt. Gen. Anwar Hama told The Associated Press.

Tal Afar is the main remaining ISIS stronghold in northern Iraq, after the capture by Iraqi forces in July of second city Mosul further east in a major blow to the terrorist group.

Plans to retake Tal Afar were announced on Monday by federal police chief Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, who said “armored and elite units” were headed for the town.

The units, whose number has not been specified, were “regrouping in combat positions in preparation for the next battle,” he said in a statement.

Joining them are the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), whose “commanders met Saturday with army and police commanders to decide on the plan to free Tal Afar,” spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi said.

Abadi is expected to announce the launch of the ground assault but there are no indications on when it is due to start.

ISIS overran Tal Afar in June 2014, when it had a population of around 200,000.

Since April, the United Nations says some 49,000 people have fled the Tal Afar district. Families who have escaped across front lines describe dire humanitarian conditions inside the town, with water and food supplies dwindling.

According to the UN, over the course of the nine-month operation to retake Mosul and surrounding villages, nearly a million people were displaced.