A prominent Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia leader has confirmed that the Hashd al-Shaabi – the paramilitary Iraqi forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces – will not take part in the military operation to recapture the strategic city of Tal Afar from the Islamic State. “Our forces will not participate in this operation due to pressure by Turkey, America and some other countries that support Daesh [Islamic State],” said Jawad al-Talibawi, a spokesman for the armed wing of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite Iraqi militia group with close ties to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.). In an exclusive interview with I.R.G.C.-affiliated Fars News Agency, Talibawi . also accused the Turkish government of providing weapons and explosives to the Islamic State militants in Mosul. However, Talibawi revealed that P.M.F. forces will instead lead another offensive to seize areas in western Mosul all the way to the Syrian border. “The upcoming battles will be difficult because as we near the Syrian border, support for Daesh [Islamic State] increases,” he added.
Comment: The extensive participation of P.M.F. forces in military operations in western Mosul has been a matter of concern for Iraqi Sunnis as well as regional Sunni states. Turkey has repeatedly warned that the P.M.F. role – particularly in Tal Afar region – could further inflame sectarianism in Iraq. It is feared that sectarian units within the P.M.F. might engage in revenge killing against Sunni residents of Tal Afar once the Islamic State is ousted.
According to another report published in Fars News Agency today, the P.M.F. has over the past six months seized an area as large as 5,000 square kilometers in Mosul from the Islamic State. It adds that the P.M.F. commenced its operations in Mosul from Qayyarah District in southern Nineveh Province in October, 2016, and that the paramilitary forces and Iraqi security forces are working together to recapture regions that are still under the Islamic State control in western Mosul.
The P.M.F. consists of militia forces largely from Shiite but also other Iraqi ethnic and religious groups. While some P.M.F. units are Iraqi nationalists and follow Iraq’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, many prominent groups within P.M.F. have close ties with Qassem Soleimani, the head of the I.R.G.C.’s elite Quds Force. What makes Sunnis particularly worried is that, despite P.M.F.’s diversity, it is the Iran-backed militia units within the P.M.F. – such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization – that are playing the most prominent role in western Mosul. These groups have also launched a vicious propaganda campaign against U.S. troops advising Iraqi forces in Mosul and across Iraq.
Last November, Iraq’s parliament approved a law legalizing the P.M.F. as separate military corps – a decision some Sunni Iraqi politicians and lawmakers derided as a Shiite “dictatorship.” But while the P.M.F. is now an integral part of the Iraqi armed forces, some P.M.F. units still receive their guidance from Soleimani rather than the Iraqi government. Many P.M.F. units have also been accused of committing rights abuses – including war crimes such abductions, extrajudicial killings, torture and property destruction.