On a road in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, ISIS erected a sign showing the flags of Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries with a giant hand dripping in blood.
“Arab tyrants are responsible for the bloodshed of Muslims,” it read. Majd Helobi, a local fixer and photographer who followed the recent battle to liberate the city from Islamic State, says the sign is a bit ironic. “The majority of the [ISIS] terrorists actually come from the same countries whose flags are on the poster.”
On August 27, after a week of fighting, the Iraqi security forces liberated Tal Afar from Islamic State in a surprisingly quick and successful operation.
There still remain areas north of the city to be retaken.
Questions remain about how the battle went so quickly and why few ISIS fighters appear to have been killed or captured. In addition, the hopes that hundreds of members of the Yazidi minority kept as slaves by ISIS would be found in Tal Afar, have not been fulfilled.
Helobi, who took part in the first and last day of the operation, says that Iraqi forces “thought it would take a long time and they were afraid that maybe the Turks will do something.” With 40,000 soldiers arrayed around Tal Afar on three sides, the Iraqi forces were worried because Turkey had warned that harm to Turkmen, who make up a majority of the city, was unacceptable.
An estimated 50,000 civilians lived in Tal Afar on the eve of battle. There was also controversy because the Iraqi forces included not only members of several army divisions and the Federal Police, but also members of the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Units.
When ISIS was welcomed in Tal Afar in June 2014, some Sunni Turkmen who supported the terrorist group carried out atrocities against their Shi’ite Turkmen neighbors and Yazidi minorities.
There were fears of reprisals.
“The feeling of the commanders was it would take a lot [of fighting],” says Helobi, reflecting on the first day of battle. He says that the Iraqi forces were in high spirits and had gained experience fighting in Mosul over the last 10 months. Within a week Tal Afar was mostly in the army’s hands and the elite “Golden Division” or counterterrorist forces had retaken the historic citadel in the city.
“They were not expecting this fast of an operation. Everyone was shocked, like ‘wow, we did it,’” recalls Helobi. He says the ISIS presence in the city seemed to evaporate, as if they disarmed.
“Something happened. I think they ran away. More than 1,000 foreign fighters were supposed to be there. That is what the commanders said. But during the operation they [the army] encountered only 25-50, not these big ISIS fighters.”
That leaves many questions as to where the enemy, including ISIS commanders, disappeared.
Tal Afar is surrounded with Iraqi army units to the east, Shi’ite militias to the southwest, and other army units and Federal Police to the northwest. To the north are Kurdish Peshmerga positions.
Helobi says rumors are that ISIS members were able to flee somehow, and perhaps their escape was even facilitated so that the battle would go smoothly and civilian casualties would not anger the Turkish government.
“I was with the Peshmerga forces two days ago and they said that it was a difficult mission around the defensive lines because ISIS was trying to escape toward Sinjar and Syria,” says Helobi.
According to Lt.-Col. James Downing of the US 82nd Airborne Division, the coalition adviser to the 15th Iraqi Army Division, there is more work to be done in and around Tal Afar, but there have been significant gains against ISIS.
“They [the Iraqi security forces] did phenomenal, they outmaneuvered the enemy and took a number [of places] without firing a shot. Impressive to see how far they have come... with their security forces and army working together,” he asserts.
He says the Iraqis learned and adapted since the battle of Mosul and moral played a big role in the victory. ISIS fighters are also fleeing. “A lot of their [ISIS] fighters have quit, and have given up on the Caliphate and some have tried to make their way out [of Tal Afar] mixed with civilians.”
The battle resulted in minimum damage to houses. “The city is not destroyed like Mosul,” says Helobi. Large numbers of Iraqi aircraft, including drones, were used in the battle, which illustrates the increasing capabilities of the Iraqis to employ advanced methods learned over the last year in cooperation with the US-led coalition.
In addition, according to local sources, the presence of the Shi’ite militias, including religious flags, was visible among many Iraqi units. There were also Iranian advisers and fighters from Syria and Lebanon identified by their accents aiding in the battle.
This has been documented in other battles in Iraq, but adds to the picture of pro-Iranian influence.
Many questions remain after Tal Afar. Signs in the city were printed in Chechen (Cyrillic alphabet), English, Turkish dialects and other foreign languages due to the presence of foreign ISIS fighters. Few Yazidis have been found. Hundreds of missing Yazidi women, sold into slavery by ISIS in August 2014, were thought to be in the city and are still missing. So far only two Yazidi children were found, according to Helobi.
One macabre discovery was made during the liberation.
According to Rudaw, a Kurdish media network, two mass graves near the Badoush prison have been exhumed and 500 bodies found, victims of ISIS’s mass murder of civilians, mostly Shi’ite and Yazidis, in 2014.
Lt.-Col. Downing describes it as a “humbling experience for me as an adviser to see these Iraqi security forces, to be a small part of this victory and watch them fight on behalf of the international community.”