A senior Iraqi official has said that the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) will take part in the “liberation” of western Mosul. “The popular mobilization forces in Nineveh Province will participate in the liberation operation of Tal Afar,” Iraqi National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayyad said in an interview with Iranian state-run Al-Alam News Network published on January 23. Al-Fayyad, who is also PMF’s chairman, added: “Al Hashd al Shaabi [PMF] forces have liberated more than 150 villages and also the airbase of Tal Afar. They have now brought the city of Tal Afar under a siege,” he added. Earlier this month, Fars News Agency, an outlet affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), reported that the PMF forces were preparing for the “sixth phase of operations to liberate the west of Nineveh Province.”

The PMF’s increasing role in western Mosul, particularly in Tal Afar, a city about 40 miles west of Mosul now mostly inhabited by Sunnis, has been a matter of grave concern for Iraqi Sunnis and regional Sunni leaders, who have repeatedly expressed the worry that Iran-backed sectarian groups may engage in revenge killings against Tal Afar’s Sunni inhabitants once the Islamic State is ousted. Turkey, in particular, has warned that it would not remain silent to the PMF’s advances into Tal Afar.

The PMF consists of militia forces largely from Shiite but also other Iraqi ethnic and religious groups. While some PMF units are Iraqi nationalists and follow Iraq’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, many prominent groups within PMF have close ties with Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force. What makes Sunnis particularly worried is that, despite PMF’s diversity, it is the Iran-backed militia units within the PMF that are playing the most prominent role in western Mosul. Last month, Jawad al-Talibawi, a spokesman for the armed wing of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, said forces from Kata'ib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada were tasked to lead the military operations to “liberate” Tal Afar. All these groups are closely linked with Iran’s Quds Force.

Last November, Iraq’s parliament approved a law legalizing the PMF as separate military corps – a decision some Sunni Iraqi politicians and lawmakers derided as a Shiite “dictatorship.”