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Iraq army launches aerial offensive against IS-controlled Tal Afar

The Iraqi military has begun its latest offensive against the so-called "Islamic State," weeks after liberating the city of Mosul. IS still occupies territory around Mosul, but its "caliphate" has effectively collapsed.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry confirmed on Tuesday that Iraqi forces had begun an aerial bombing campaign against so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militants in the city of Tal Afar, one of the militant group's last remaining pockets in the region.

It marks the Iraqi military's next major offensive after it last month completed a long and deadly campaign to take back the city of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and a major IS stronghold.

Read more: UN: 'Islamic State' remains a threat despite military setbacks

A Defense Ministry spokesman said that US-backed military personnel were already stationed on the outskirts of Tal Afar, located some 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Mosul.

Watch video 01:24

Mosul: Civilians struggle to survive after city has been freed

The air campaign will reportedly target IS fortifications in the city, including headquarters, tunnels and weapons caches, before ground troops push in, albeit not for a few weeks, according to military sources.

Tal Afar had a population of around 200,000 people before it fell to IS in 2014. However, it was already a hotbed for sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite groups in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The city has also produced some of IS's most senior commanders.

Defeat of IS forces in Tal Afar would mark another major milestone in the country's fight against the jihadi group. IS's caliphate was effectively wiped out following the army's grueling, nine-month long campaign to liberate Mosul, but the group continues to occupy smaller territories in the region.

Risks abound

The mission to retake Mosul didn't come without major costs, however. According to the UN, over the course of the nine-month liberation, nearly a million people were displaced from within and around the city, while many thousands died as a result of IS's atrocities, as well as US-led coalition bombing campaigns.

There are fears that the same could happen in Tal Afar. The UN estimates that some 50,000 people have already fled the city since April. Escapees have reported dire humanitarian conditions in the IS-controlled town, with water and food running desperately short.

The mission to take Tal Afar will also provoke further warnings from Turkey over potential demographic changes in the region. Once home to ethnic Turkmen, Turkish officials have voiced concerns that Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite forces will eventually expel Sunni Arabs and Turkmen after the land has been liberated from IS.

dm/kms (AP, AFP, dpa)

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