ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi forces are carrying out air strikes on Tal Afar, a town held by Islamic State west of Mosul, in preparation for a ground assault, an Iraqi military spokesman said on Tuesday.
Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate effectively collapsed last month, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces completed the recapture of Mosul, the militants’ capital in northern Iraq, after a nine-month campaign.
Parts of Iraq and Syria remain however under Islamic State control, especially along the border.
Iraqi authorities had said Tal Afar, 80 km (50 miles) west of Mosul, will be the next target in the war on Islamic State, who swept through parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
The town, which had about 200,000 residents before falling to Islamic State, experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has produced some of Islamic State’s most senior commanders.
“The preparations are under way, there are strikes aimed at wearing them down and keeping them busy, targeting their command and control centers, their depots... these strikes have been going on for some time,” Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said in a statement.
“We are waiting for the commander in chief of the armed forces (Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi)to give the orders for the liberation battle to start.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Baghdad-based al-Sumariya TV quoted Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Khodari as saying the ground attack should start after the aerial bombardment campaign.
Tal Afar has become the focus of a wider regional struggle for influence. Turkey, which claims affinity with Tal Afar’s predominantly ethnic Turkmen population, opposes the involvement of Shi’ite paramilitary groups fighting with Iraqi forces, some of which are backed by Iran.
One of Iraq’s senior military commanders, Major-General Najm al-Jabouri, told Reuters last month that between 1,500 and 2,000 militants were in Tal Afar, a figure which possibly includes some family members who support them.
The U.S.-led coalition is also keeping up its support to the Iraqi forces’ campaign to end the militants presence all over the country.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryad Dillon said last Thursday that the coalition carried out more than 50 strikes in the past week against Islamic State defensive positions, headquarters, weapons caches, and bomb factories in Tal Afar and also Kisik Junction to the east.
“We fully expect this to be a difficult fight to root out ISIS from one of their last strongholds in Iraq,” Dillon told a news briefing.
Jabouri had a different assessment of the battle, expecting a relatively easy victory because the militants and their families there are “worn out and demoralized”.
Islamic State has also lost swathes of Syrian territory to separate campaigns being waged by Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran and by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic (SDF) Forces, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia. The SDF is currently focused on capturing Raqqa city from Islamic State.
Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Angus MacSwan