BAGHDAD — Iraqi and coalition planes have stepped up airstrikes on Islamic State targets in the town of Tal Afar ahead of a planned offensive there, Iraq’s air force commander said on Tuesday.
The intensifying strikes come as Iraqi forces are slowly closing in on the IS-held town west of Mosul, forcing thousands of civilians to flee in anticipation of the ground offensive.
A series of airstrikes this week targeted IS group headquarters, tunnels and weapons’ stores, Lt. Gen. Anwar Hama told The Associated Press.
The area around Tal Afar is one of the last pockets of IS-held territory in Iraq after victory was declared in July against the militants in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
But Iraqi forces, closely backed by the U.S.-led coalition, are not expected to push into the town for another few weeks, according to an Iraqi officer overseeing the operation. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Iraqi army, federal police and special forces units are expected to participate in the operation to retake Tal Afar. Additionally, the spokesman for Iraq’s government-sanctioned mostly Shiite militias — known as the Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF — said his forces would also take part in the battle.
Tal Afar was once home to Sunni and Shiite ethnic Turkmen and the involvement of PMF could increase tensions between Iraq and neighboring Turkey. Turkey has repeatedly warned that military operations in and around Mosul should not lead to demographic changes on the ground. Some Turkish officials are concerned that once territory is liberated from IS, Iraqi Kurdish or Shiite forces may push out Sunni Arabs or ethnic Turkmen.
Since April, the United Nations says some 49,000 people have fled the Tal Afar district. Families who have escaped across front lines describe dire humanitarian conditions inside the town, with water and food supplies dwindling.
According to the U.N., over the course of the nine-month operation to retake Mosul and surrounding villages, nearly a million people were displaced.
Associated Press writer Balint Szlanko in Badoush, Iraq, contributed to this report.