Smoke billows as Iraqi government forces supported by fighters from the Abbas Brigade, which fights under the umbrella of the Shiite popular mobilization units, 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, on August 20, 2017. — AFP

HALABIYAH: Iraqi forces made significant progress as they closed in on the Islamic State-held town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, the US-led coalition and an Iraqi military spokesman said yesterday. US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman, told The Associated Press that Iraqi forces have retaken some 250 square kilometers from the extremist group since the operation began early Sunday, though they have not yet pushed into the town itself.

"As we get into the urban areas - as we saw in Mosul and Raqqa - that's where we'll see the pace slow down, that's where (IS) have placed their defenses," he said. Dozens of civilians fled the area. Sadia Sajet, from Tal Afar, said she walked for over a day to cross the front line and reach Iraqi forces. "We stayed overnight by the river. There were a lot of dead bodies there. The smell was horrible," she said. "We slept there and then started walking again at four in the morning. And we walked until we arrived here."

Sajet said two other women fleeing with her died of exhaustion while attempting to make the journey. The spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, said troops recaptured six villages located a few kilometers from the urban areas of Tal Afar. He said militants deployed suicide car bombers, road side bombs and mortars to slow down the advancing troops.

Citing intelligence, Rasool estimated the number of IS militants inside the town at around 2,000 fighters. US-backed Iraqi forces drove IS from Mosul last month after a grueling, nine-month campaign to retake the country's second largest city. US-allied forces are currently battling IS in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the extremists' de facto capital.

Dillon said most of the territory retaken in the operation has been in the Kisik junction area to the east of the town. Tal Afar, about 150 kilometers east of the Syrian border, is in one of the last pockets of IS-held territory in Iraq. Some 49,000 people have fled the Tal Afar district since April, according to the United Nations, sparking concern the displaced will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis that erupted during the Mosul operation. Nearly a million people remain displaced by the campaign to retake Mosul. - AP