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Middle East

Iraq declares victory over 'Islamic State' in Tal Afar

The US-led coalition has hailed the liberation of the strategic city of Tal Afar as a "stunning victory" for Iraqi forces. But as IS regroups, US officials have warned that the militant group's leader may still be alive.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the recapture of the strategic city of Tal Afar from the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militant group in a statement circulated Friday.

"Tal Afar has been liberated," Abadi said in a statement. "We say to the 'Islamic State' fighters: wherever you are, we are coming for you, and you have no choice but to surrender or die."

Iraqi forces launched the operation to recapture Tal Afar after liberating Mosul in July. IS rose to notoriety in 2014, when it launched a brutal military campaign and captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, culminating in the occupation of Mosul.

'Dangerous work remains'

Tal Afar, which lies about 70 kilometers (40 miles) west of Mosul, was a strategic point for IS along the militant group's supply line between Iraq and Syria. The operation is a significant win for Iraqi forces who captured the city in less than two weeks.

Read more: Masoud's list: From 'Islamic State' victim to terrorist hunter

However, the US-led coalition against IS warned that while recapturing Tal Afar marked a "stunning victory," Iraqi forces faced significant challenges securing the former Shiite enclave.

"Dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts so they do not threaten the security of Tal Afar in the future," said a coalition statement.

'No convincing evidence' IS chief dead

Meanwhile, US Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-IS coalition, said that evidence has yet to emerge that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed despite numerous reports stating otherwise.

In June, Russian authorities said they were investigating whether Russian airstrikes had killed him in May, while the independent UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed to have credible information from senior IS leaders that al-Baghdadi was dead.

Read more: Who is the 'Islamic State' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

"I've seen no convincing evidence, intelligence, or open-source or other rumor or otherwise that he's dead … There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he's still alive," Townsend said.

"When we find him, I think we'll just try to kill him first. It's probably not worth all the trouble to try and capture him."

Thousands of IS fighters have fled to Syria's Deir el-Zour province as the US-led coalition has ramped up efforts to uproot the militant group in their strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Townsend said it is likely that al-Baghdadi had fled with other IS fighters to one of the militant group's remaining bastions.

ls/ng (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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