UPDATE: Ninawa Governorate

Smoke rises above Tel Afar during operations to recapture the city from ISIS (Al Jazeera; August 24, 2017)

By Kyra Kaercher, Susan Penacho, Jamie O'Connell, and Allison Cuneo

On August 31, 2017, Haider al-Abadi announced that Iraqi forces liberated Tal Afar, the  last stronghold of ISIS in Ninawa Governorate. Tal Afar has been inhabited since approximately 7000 BCE, and was an integral part of the Assyrian Empire from 2500–600 BCE.  During the Ottoman period, Tal Afar was a Turkish outpost created to control the Yazidi populations and as such the city was historically Kurdish and Turkmen (Fuccaro 1999). During Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, Sunni Arabs were relocated to Ninawa Governorate. Subsequently Kurdish populations were moved into towns north of Tal Afar. Sunni Arabs are now currently located in towns to the south, and Yazidi majority towns are located to the west. In 2014, Tal Afar remained a majority Iraqi Turkmen city, 75% of which were Sunni Muslim with the remainder identifying as Shia.

Tal Afar is strategically located on the road between Mosul and Sinjar. Tal Afar’s Sunni and Shia populations lived in relative peace, but sectarian violence erupted between the two groups following 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Like Mosul, Tal Afar is a Sunni majority city in a largely Shia-majority country, and the collapse of the secular central government and the establishment of the resulting Shia-dominated government stoked simmering sectarian tensions to a breaking point. Following the capture of the region, ISIS exploited these ethno-sectarian tensions to recruit Sunni Arabs to the organization’s cause. Tal Afar fell to ISIS following a two-day battle ending June 16, 2014, and soon after Human Rights Watch reported ISIS destroyed nine Shia places of worship June 25 and July 2, 2014. “This province [Ninawa Governorate] was also the engine of the ISIL economy. It is where they used to smuggle oil to other areas. It is also where they used to generate big revenues in terms of taxes,” states al Jazeera reporter Osama Bin Javaid.

Cultural Heritage Destruction

ASOR CHI reported 13 mosques and shrines damaged in June 2014 as a result of intentional destruction by ISIS. Many of these incidents were documented and publicized in photographs and video footage released by ISIS and the pattern of destruction demonstrates that these sites were target for ideological reasons; twelve of these places of worship were identified as Shiite and one is undetermined. ISIS ideology labels Shiites as heretics, and the veneration of saints apostasy. As a result, Shia places of worship, particularly tombs and shrines, are often targeted for vandalism and destruction.

The Shia Mosque of Sheikh Jawad al-Sadiq in Tal Afar was intentionally destroyed by ISIS on June 26, 2014. It was reportedly rigged with explosives and destroyed. With the liberation of Tal Afar, new video footage was posted showing the rubble of the detonated minaret. Unlike in Mosul, the ruin was not cleared and the land was left undeveloped.

The intentional destruction of the Mosque of Sheikh Jawad al-Sadiq (AP; June 26, 2014)

Minaret of the Mosque of Sheikh Jawad al-Sadiq lying among the ruins of the mosque (al-Mosuliya; August 30, 2017)

The Khider al-Elias Shrine was a multi-faith holy site for members of the Shia, Christian and Yezidi faith. Human Rights Watch reported ISIS carried out an intentional destruction of the shrine on June 25, 2014, later corroborated by DigitalGlobe Satellite imagery. Shrines like Khider al-Elias, with multiple religious populations using the structure are extremely vulnerable to acts of intentional destruction carried out by ISIS.

Khider al-Elias Shrine before its destruction (DigitalGlobe NextView License; January 8, 2014)

The complete destruction of the shrine. (DigitalGlobe NextView License; July 4, 2014)

In Tal Afar, historical places were targeted by ISIS alongside religious heritage. The Tal Afar Citadel, built upon a 11,000 year old pre-Islamic tell and a possible Assyrian fortress, is an Ottoman castle occupied between approximately 1500–1900 CE. Previously the citadel was used as the headquarters of the municipal council and local police after the 2003 US-led invasion. After the capture by ISIS, the citadel was repurposed as Sharia court and prison. The citadel was used as a prison for women, mainly Yazidi and Christian women waiting to be sold to ISIS militants; following its capture from ISIS, Iraqi forces found chains and other restraints used on prisoners. The historical structure itself was also intentionally damaged. On December 31, 2014 ISIS militants detonated bombs planted in the northern and western citadel, and it was reported that ISIS had tunneled into the mound to gather antiquities.

Iraqi forces stand atop the Citadel (France 24; August 28, 2017)

Damage to Tal Afar Citadel (Ahmad al-Rubaye/Getty Images; August 27, 2017)

The citadel before its destruction (DigitalGlobe NextView License; November 19, 2014)

The current state of the citadel with buildings and the fortification wall destroyed (DigitalGlobe NextView License; August 11, 2017)


After a month long intensive battle Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Tal Afar and the neighboring city of al-’Ayadiya. The humanitarian toll of ISIS on this region is enormous. Tal Afar had an estimated 200,000 residents before ISIS’s invasion in 2014, but the Iraqi army estimates only 50,000 to 10,000 civilians stayed behind when operations started mid August. ISIS was especially brutal toward Tal Afar’s ethnic Shia Turkmen population during its three year occupation of the area, who suffered kidnapping and executions. Human Rights Watch reports that 90 percent of Tal Afar’s 125,000 person Turkmen population fled north into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Turkey. Because of its strong Turkmen population, Turkey has pledged support for the reconstruction of the city.

Like the Mosul operation, Tal Afar was liberated by a mixed group of Shia and Sunni Iraqi Security Forces and Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Kurdish Peshmerga Forces control the area to the north of Tal Afar but were not present in the fight to recapture the area. The sectarian affiliation of some of these armed groups has led to concern among the majority Sunni population of the city that sectarian retributory constitutes a major risk. For example, Shia militia members were accused of conducting sectarian revenge killings and attacking Sunni religious sites, homes, and businesses following the capture of Tikrit and Fallujah. In light of this, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted that it was necessary to bring ISIS to justice and return control of Tal Afar to its residents and “legitimate Iraqi Forces instead of Militia groups acting in their own agenda.” Given that the PMU’s are an official branch of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) under the auspices of Baghdad, concern runs high as to the level of impunity these forces may enjoy.

With the defeat of ISIS and the return of Iraqi governance, suicide bombings are on the rise. It is predicted that low-level insurgency, prominent in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, is returning once again to the region now the ISIS has been defeated. As the spokesperson from Operation Inherent Resolve summarized, “While the city and critical infrastructure are under ISF control, 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.” Dlawer Ala-Aldeen states, “When you get rid of the last stronghold you pave the way for reconstruction, reconciliation and all the process of recovery, as well as people getting to their houses… but actually that is it, because the next is the biggest challenge: providing security and services and dealing with the many armed groups.” Although the recapture of Tal Afar was another victory in the defeat against ISIS, returning to normalcy will prove to be another challenge for its local citizens, government officials, and security forces.


Sources Cited: 

Fuccaro, Nelida. 1999. The Other Kurds: Yazidis in Colonial Iraq

Posted in All Posts, Updates.