Iraqi government forces advance towards the city of Tal Afar, the main remaining stronghold of the Islamic State group, after the government announced the beginning of an operation to retake it from the jihadists. (AFP photo)
BAGHDAD, Aug. 22 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi security forces battling Islamic State (IS) militants on Tuesday pushed into the first urban areas in the third day of an offensive to drive out IS militants from the city of Tal Afar in Iraq's northern province of Nineveh, the Iraqi military said.
In the morning, the commandos of the Counter Terrorism Service forces initiated a new push into the neighborhood of Kifah in southwestern Tal Afar, as heavy clashes against the extremist militants continued during the day, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Yarallah from the Joint Operations Command said in a brief statement.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi army's 9th Armored Division teamed up with paramilitary members of Hashd Shaabi units and broke into the eastern side of the city under fierce clashes with IS militants, Yarallah said in a separate statement.
The troops, covered by Iraqi and international aircraft, continued clearing areas surrounding Tal Afar and recaptured six villages, along with seizing al-Kasak oil refinery east of the city, Yarallah noted.
The Hashd Shaabi intelligence said in a report that the IS group resistance is weak and its militants are fleeing to the center of the city instead of confronting the security forces, though they sent suicide bombers to hamper the advance of the security forces.
The International Organization of Migration (IOM) said that it has received some 3,200 people since Aug. 18 in its emergency refugee camps in Haj Ali and Qayyara, both located some 60 km south of Mosul.
"Thousands more are expected to flee in the coming days," IOM, the UN migration agency, said in a statement.
It said that most of the displaced people from Tal Afar "had to walk for hours in arduous conditions before reaching safe areas. Many arrived exhausted and in poor health, often with critical levels of malnutrition among children, some unable to move."
On Aug. 20, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of Iraqi forces, declared the start of an operation to retake control of the northern city Tal Afar and nearby areas from IS militants.
"We announce the launch of an operation to liberate Tal Afar. I say to Daesh (IS militants) -- either you surrender or die," Abadi said.
The targeted area of Tal Afar is about 3,206 square km, which consists of the city of Tal Afar itself and two districts of Ayadhiyah and Mahalabiyah, in addition to about 47 villages scattered in the area, according to information obtained from the official Iraqiya television.
Tal Afar, some 70 km west of Mosul, is the last IS redoubt in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh. Up to 350,000 to 400,000 people used to live in the city and surrounding areas, including 250,000 people in Tal Afar. But most of them left their homes either due to the sectarian strife during the years after 2003, or after the city fell to the IS in 2014.
The majority population of Tal Afar area are Sunni and Shiite Turkomans, in addition to the minority of Kurds and other minorities.
IOM estimates that some 10,000 to 40,000 people are still living in the city of Tal Afar and surrounding areas.
Earlier, the army's Major General Najim al-Jubouri, commander of Nineveh's Operations Command, told reporters that he estimated there were between 1,500 and 2,000 IS militants left in Tal Afar.