The Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi – the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) – earlier today announced the launch of the second phase of the “Muhammad Rasulullah” operation in western Mosul of Iraq’s Nineveh Province. According to Fars News Agency, an outlet affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), P.M.F. forces today killed 57 Islamic State militants and seized nine villages in al-Kairouan region in western Mosul. A P.M.F. statement said the new military operation’s aim is to seize Islamic State weapons caches in eastern al-Kairouan and shut terrorists’ communication lines. Hunain al-Qadu, a member of the Iraqi parliament from Nineveh Province, said the P.M.F. siege over Tal Afar has prepared the ground for the Iraqi security forces to seize the last major city from the Islamic State.

Comment: The P.M.F. operations in western Mosul are backed by both the Iraqi air force and I.R.G.C. operatives that assist the paramilitary forces in the region. P.M.F. forces launched the Muhammad Rasullah operation on April 25 and have so far captured several regions from the Islamic State, including the historic city of al-Hadar in western Mosul. The P.M.F. has also begun a joint offensive with the Iraqi army to retake areas between the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin.

The P.M.F.’s leading role in military operations in western Mosul – particularly the prominent role of Iran-backed units within the P.M.F. – has caused a great deal of concern for Iraqi Sunnis and some regional Sunni states. It is feared that some sectarian groups within the P.M.F. might engage in revenge killing and rights abuses against Sunnis in western Mosul once the Islamic state is defeated. Jawad al-Talibawi, a spokesman for the armed wing of Iran-controlled Asaib Ahl al-Haq, revealed earlier this week that P.M.F. “forces will not participate in the upcoming operation to liberate the city of Tal Afar “due to pressure by Turkey, America and some other countries” which he accused of supporting the Islamic State. However, Talibawi stressed that P.M.F. forces will instead lead another offensive to seize areas in western Mosul all the way to the Syrian border.

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.