Tal Afar residents who fled are back to battle ISIS

2017-08-27 19:25
(File, AP)

(File, AP)

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Tal Afar - Iraqi Turkmen fighter Abbas Yussef is all smiles, clutching his Kalashnikov near the front lines in Tel Afar after his unit retook his home neighbourhood from Islamic State group jihadists.

"I can't describe my joy when I saw my house again," Yussef says.

"I can't describe how it felt to take it back, a gun in my hand."

Three years ago, ISIS seized nearly one third of Iraq, including Tal Afar, in a sweeping offensive that forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Yussef was among them, but quickly, along with thousands of others, he responded to a call by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shi'ite authority in Iraq, to take up arms against the jihadists.

Soon afterwards he enrolled in the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi, an umbrella organisation which is dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias but which also includes Shi'ite Turkmen.

The Hashed took part in the offensive to retake Iraq's second city Mosul, which was liberated in July after a gruelling nine-month onslaught, alongside US-backed Iraqi military, police and counter-terrorism forces.

Now the paramilitary group has been battling to recapture Tal Afar, where IS has been driven out of all 29 districts in the northern city a mere week into an assault by Iraqi forces.

Families fled south

With Iraqi forces poised to declare victory over IS, Hashed fighters like Yussef recall how three years ago they were driven from their homes by advancing jihadists.

"I had to leave with my family for Diwaniya" province south of Baghdad, "leaving behind the house I had spent a lifetime building," Yussef tells AFP, wiping dust and sweat from his face.

The former Iraq army officer now in his 40s was battling IS holdouts in the western Tal Afar neighbourhood of Al-Kifah when he saw his house - and that brought a smile to his face.

Akram Kambris was also driven out by IS from Al-Kifah.

Sitting on a rock, the Hashed fighter points to an out-patient clinic.

"I was posted there when I was in the local police," he says before pointing to another rose-coloured red-brick building. "That's my sister's house."

Kambris recalls that three years ago he and his "entire family" fled south when the jihadists swept into Tal Afar.

Now, he says, all of Tal Afar's residents are involved in the offensive to rout IS from the city. "The younger ones fight and the older ones organise (food) convoys" for the militiamen.

Masters of the land

Most of the city's 200 000-strong population - overwhelmingly Shiite Turkmen whose beliefs are considered heretical by the Sunni jihadists of IS - fled Tal Afar after IS seized it.

Some members of the city's Sunni minority joined the jihadists and went on to form a contingent with a particularly brutal reputation.

According to Akram, "just a few families linked to IS" have stayed on in Tal Afar.

Yussef says that "most of the IS chiefs in Tal Afar" hail from prominent families.

According to him, "there are Kurds among IS and their leader is Abu Alaa al-Talafari", who was close to the leader of the jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

"Actually most of the IS emirs are originally from Tal Afar. Foreign and Turkish IS members joined later," says Yussef.

Another Hashed militiaman, Abu Zeinab, brands IS fighters in Tal Afar as "cowards".

"They are not fighting. We entered one house yesterday and found a stockpile of weapons," he says.

"They could have used them and held out for another two weeks, but they didn't. They can't resist us, because here we are the masters of the land."

Read more on:    isis  |  syria

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