BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister on Thursday declared the town of Tal Afar “fully liberated” from the Islamic State group after a nearly two-week operation, the latest blow to the extremist group that controlled nearly a third of the country just three years ago.
Iraqi troops “eliminated and smashed Daesh terrorists” in al-Ayadia district, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) northwest of Tal Afar where the militants fled last week, Haider al-Abadi said in a statement. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for IS.
“To Daesh criminals we say: Wherever you are we will come to liberate and you have to choose only death or surrender,” he said.
With Tal Afar liberated, all of Nineveh province — the first area IS militants captured in a 2014 blitz — “is in the hands of our brave troops,” al-Abadi said.
Thursday’s announcement came a day after Jordan and Iraq reopened their only border crossing after a two-year closure since the militants took over most of Anbar province. Both sides celebrated the reopening as another victory over the militant group.
U.S.-backed Iraqis troops launched the operation to retake Tal Afar early last week, a month after it declared the northern city of Mosul, its second largest, to be fully liberated. Tal Afar is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Syria’s border and it was among the last IS-held towns in Iraq.
Iraqi officials often declare areas liberated before the fighting has completely ended, and the militants have been known to carry out surprise counterattacks. ISIS still controls the northern town of Hawija as well as the towns of Qaim, Rawa and Ana in western Iraq near Syria.
Still, Iraqi state TV immediately cut its regular programs and aired national songs and a live feed from the area where soldiers celebrating the victory as dancing and brandishing their weapons in jubilantly. The feed also showed traffic boards leading to the city center of al-Ayadia where military vehicles were coming out and in.
Al-Abadi also alluded to a much-criticized deal brokered by Lebanon’s Hezbollah with IS fighters to clear them from an area along the Lebanon-Syria border. He noted that his troops didn’t allow ISIS militants to flee al-Ayadia, saying “that’s our firm stance against those criminals who pose a threat to all people in the region and world wherever they are.”
On Tuesday, al-Abadi had criticized the deal, which allowed hundreds of militants to leave to an ISIS-controlled area near the Iraqi border, and describing it as “worrying and an insult to the Iraqi people.”
Shortly after al-Abadi’s statement, the U.S.-led coalition hailed what it described as a “stunning victory.” The coalition warned that “dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts.”
Iraqi forces have driven IS from most of Iraq’s major towns and cities seized by the militants in the summer of 2014, including Mosul, which was retaken after a grueling nine-month campaign.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed.
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