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Aug 22, 8:44 AM EDT

Commander: Iraqi troops reach first urban areas of Tal Afar

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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi troops on Tuesday reached the first urban areas of the Islamic State-held northern town of Tal Afar on the third day of a multi-pronged operation, said a military commander.

U.S.-trained elite forces, known as the Counter Terrorism Service, entered the al-Kifah neighborhood on the southwest edge of town, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah, who commands the operation, said in a statement. He didn't give more details.

Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil, of the Iraqi special forces, told The Associated Press that the advancing troops didn't face tough resistance from IS fighters, though they did fire rockets, sent suicide car bombers and used roadside bombs.

Fadhil expected the fighting to get even heavier as they push into the town's center which is about 4.5 kilometers (about 3 miles) away. Civilians were not seen fleeing the area, he added.

The U.S.-backed operation was launched Sunday, a month after Iraq declared victory over IS in Mosul, the country's second largest city. Tal Afar, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of the Syrian border, is one of the last pockets of IS-held territory in Iraq.

Along with the special forces, Iraq's regular army, militarized Federal Police and Shiite-dominated paramilitary forces are taking part in the assault. Iraq's state-run TV aired live footage showing pillars of smoke rising in the distance as military vehicles traveled through wide, arid areas.

According to the U.S.-led coalition, approximately 10,000-50,000 civilians remain in and around Tal Afar.

Around 3,200 individuals have fled in the past four days to two displacement camps south of Mosul, the International Organization for Migration said in a statement.

"These internally displaced persons (IDPs) carried a minimal amount of clothes; some only had what they wore, some were partially clothed," the statement said, adding that thousands more are expected to flee in the coming days.

Most of the residents had to walk for hours in arduous conditions before reaching safe areas, the statement said. "Many of the displaced people from Talafar arrive exhausted and in poor health, often with critical levels of malnutrition among children, some unable to move."

Iraqi forces have driven IS from most of the major towns and cities seized by the militants in the summer of 2014, including Mosul, which was retaken after a grueling nine-month campaign.

But along with Tal Afar, the militants are still fully in control of the northern town of Hawija as well as Qaim, Rawa and Ana, in western Iraq near the Syrian border.


Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed.

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