By Isabel Coles
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - A senior Iraqi general predicted a relatively easy victory for his forces in the upcoming battle for the Islamic State haven of Tal Afar as up 2,000 fighters and their families there are "worn out and demoralised".
Less than one month after declaring victory in the city of Mosul, Iraqi forces are poised to attack Tal Afar, which is around 40 km to the west of Mosul, in what will be the next major battle against the militants.
"I don't expect it will be a fierce battle even though the enemy is surrounded," Major-General Najm al-Jabouri told Reuters in an interview.
Jabouri, a key battlefield commander, said the fight would be simple compared to the nine months of gruelling urban combat in Mosul, which took a heavy toll on Iraqi forces.
"The enemy is very worn out," said Jabouri, who was mayor of Tal Afar when it was overrun by insurgents more than a decade ago. "I know from the intelligence reports that their morale is low," the general added.
The city, with about 200,000 residents before falling to Islamic State, experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and produced some of Islamic State's most senior commanders.
It has also become the focus of a wider regional struggle for influence. Turkey, which claims affinity with Tal Afar's predominantly ethnic Turkmen population, opposes the involvement of Shi'ite paramilitary groups fighting with Iraqi forces, some of which are backed by Iran.
Jabouri estimated there were between 1,500 and 2,000 militants left in Tal Afar. The figure may include some family members who support them.
"It's a large number, but the terrain is favourable (to Iraqi forces)," Jabouri said. Only one part of the city, Sarai, is comparable to Mosul's Old City, where Iraqi troops were forced to advance on foot through narrow streets. The rest of Tal Afar can be navigated in tanks and armoured vehicles.
Unlike Mosul, where Islamic State effectively held hundreds of thousands of people hostage to slow the advances of Iraqi forces, Jabouri said few civilians remained in Tal Afar, except those related to the militants.
Iraqi forces expect to face bombs, snipers and booby-traps. Despite being surrounded, there is no sign the militants are running low on ammunition, Jabouri said.
Many local Turkmen members of Islamic State already managed to escape by mingling with displaced civilians and fled to Turkey, where they can blend in anonymously, Jabouri said.
Of the remaining militants, Jabouri believed many were foreigners -- from Turkey, former Soviet Republics and Southeast Asia -- who became trapped after Iraqi forces severed all routes between Mosul and Tal Afar earlier this year.
The city had already been sealed off by Kurdish forces to the north, and mainly Shi'ite paramilitaries to the south leading to shortages of food and water.
The U.S.-led coalition has conducted air strikes in and around Tel Afar, paving the way for Iraqi forces to storm the city after reorganising and recuperating from Mosul.
Jabouri said all that remained was to receive orders from Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to launch the assault: "perhaps it will be in days, or a week, or two".
Beyond Tal Afar, Islamic State still controls other pockets of territory in Iraq, including the town of Hawija and the surrounding area.
ECHOES OF THE PAST
The upcoming battle for Tal Afar carries echoes of the past.
As the United States reduced its troop presence in northern Iraq after the invasion, Sunni insurgents seized the opportunity to take over most of Tal Afar in 2005.
Jabouri, who was mayor at the time, held out in the 16th-century Ottoman citadel that used to dominate the city from a hilltop in the centre as Iraqi and American troops led by Colonel H.R. McMaster routed the insurgents.
The city stabilised, and McMaster's approach was held up as a blueprint for successful counter-insurgency strategy, but in years to come Tal Afar lapsed back into communal violence and insurgents took root again.
Jabouri says he met with McMaster, who is now U.S. National Security Adviser, around one month ago and they discussed Tal Afar. "It was different," said Jabouri, comparing the past battle with the future one.
Islamic State is more formidable an enemy than al Qaeda was, he said, but Iraqi forces have also gained experience over three years of fighting the group.
The U.S. role is less conspicuous this time, and the historic citadel is no longer standing because Islamic State blew it up.
(Reporting by Isabel Coles, editing by Peter Millership)