Irbil, Baghdad- Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared on Thursday victory over terror group ISIS’ militants in Tal Afar and the entire province of Nineveh.
“Tal Afar has been liberated,” Abadi said in a statement. “We say to the ISIS fighters: wherever you are, we are coming for you, and you have no choice but to surrender or die.”
The announcement came despite continued fighting in the small town of al-‘Ayadiya.
Tal Afar had become the next target of the US-backed war on the extremist group following the capture of Mosul, where it declared its “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
The defeat in Mosul, Nineveh’s provincial capital, marked the latest in a string of territorial losses for the group. However, the militants still control areas on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
This includes Hawija, a city between Mosul and Baghdad that Iraqi officials have said will be the coalition’s next target.
The Iraqi army dropped millions of leaflets over Hawija on Thursday, warning residents it was preparing an offensive to recapture the city from ISIS, the military said in a statement.
The leaflets urged residents to stay away from militants’ headquarters, to drop weapons and turn themselves in to avoid being killed.
Iraqi forces had been waiting to clear al-‘Ayadiya, 11 km (7 miles) northwest of Tal Afar, before declaring complete victory in the offensive. ISIS militants had retreated to the town.
Divisions from the Iraqi army and federal police, backed by units from Shi‘ite paramilitaries, retook al-‘Ayadiya on Thursday, military officers told Reuters, after several days of unexpectedly fierce fighting.
However, pockets of resistance remained and Iraqi forces were still working to clear the remaining militants from the town.
“We have to make sure that no more terrorists remain hiding inside the town’s houses,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Salah Kareem told Reuters.
Two military officers whose units are leading the fight in al-‘Ayadiya on Thursday said scattered groups of militants were still hiding in houses and using tunnel networks to move through the town.
Four soldiers were killed and 10 more wounded as clashes continued in parts of al-‘Ayadiya on Thursday night, despite the announcement hours earlier by the prime minister.
Three soldiers were killed on Thursday evening and seven more wounded when a woman detonated a suicide vest, Kareem said.
“Soldiers thought the woman was a civilian trying to escape the fighting, but as soon as she came close to the soldiers, she blew herself up and killed three,” an army officer said.
In a separate incident, an ISIS sniper killed a soldier and wounded three others during a search.
“We are still being shot at by snipers and coming under heavy gunfire from Daesh fighters,” Kareem said.
Iraqi forces will intensify their operations on Friday, to dislodge the militants still entrenched inside scattered houses, army officers said.