Iraqi forces said they have dislodged ISIL from the majority of Tal Afar, a stronghold of the fighters in northwest Iraq.
The offensive on Tal Afar, which lies on the supply route between Syria and the former ISIL group stronghold of Mosul, began on August 20.
“Seventy percent of the city has been liberated … God willing, the remaining part will be liberated soon,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said at a news conference on Saturday alongside his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and French Defence Minister Florence Parly, in Baghdad.
France deployed artillery as part of the international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), according to Parly.
Iraqi troops “liberated the citadel neighborhood .. and raised the Iraqi flag on top of the citadel building”, a statement from the Iraqi joint operations command said.
Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from Erbil, said the soldiers were inching closer to victory as the city is surrounded by Iraqi government forces and allied militia.
The new frontline against ISIL
“The soldiers are in high spirits and they feel that within hours they will be able to take the whole city,” he said
“But the security forces were surprised they did not face the kind of resistance they expected from ISIL fighters.
“One of the reasons of that maybe because the group’s back has been broken – the [Iraqi] forces have been surrounding and besieging Tal Afar for months, cutting supply routes.”
The city, located 80km west of Mosul, has produced some of ISIL’s most senior commanders.
Tal Afar experienced cycles of violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Up to 2,000 fighters remain in the city, according to US and Iraqi military commanders.
“The battle has gone much more quickly than expected. Cased on the experience of Mosul, we thought getting to the centre of Tal Afar would be a harder fight,” Matthew Glanville, former special adviser to the Governor of Anbar province, told Al Jazeera.
“That said, ISIL has a history of allowing Iraqi forces in certain urban areas and then counter-attacking. So we should look for surprise ISIL offensives, probably on the edge of Tal Afar, to distract and disorient the Iraqi forces.”
Waves of residents began fleing the city weeks before the battle started.
Those remaining are threatened with death by ISIL fighters who have held a tight grip on the city since 2014, according to aid organisations and residents who managed to escape.
On Tuesday, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said those who had fled were suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, having lived off unclean water and bread for three to four months.
People arrived at camps for the displaced with wounds from sniper fire and mine explosions.
The spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia majority has called on doctors to help civilians fleeing clashes.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said medical workers should travel to areas around the battle for Tal Afar to help “to treat the wounded and treat them as a humanitarian, national and religious duty”.
Elsewhere, Iraqi military investigators said on Friday that they have discovered two mass graves near a former ISIL prison outside Mosul that contains the bodies of 500 victims.
Thousands flee as Iraqi forces attack ISIL-held Tal Afar
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies