As the Iraqi government announced on Sunday the launch of an offensive to regain control of western Mosul from the Islamic State, Iran-backed Iraqi militia units are playing a leading role in the military operations in the region, the Iranian media reports. According to Fars News Agency, an outlet affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) militiamen today cleared the road between the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar from the Islamic State. Fars News also quotes Hashd- al-Shaabi spokesperson Ahmad al-Assadi as saying: “The forces of the 26th Brigade of the Hashd al-Shaabi have reached the village of al-Sahabi and have gained the control of the main road.”

Comment: The prominent role of Shiite militia units in military operations in western Mosul has been a matter of grave concern for regional Sunni states and Iraqi lawmakers, who have expressed the concern that Iran-backed sectarian groups may engage in revenge killings and human rights abuses against the region’s largely Sunni population once the Islamic State is defeated. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a press conference today again warned that the participation of PMF units in western Mosul could further inflame sectarianism in Iraq.

The Iran-supported groups’ leading role also poses security risks to the U.S. military advisers that are helping the Iraqi forces battling the Islamic State. Over the past two days, Iran-linked Iraqi militia groups have launched a vicious propaganda campaign against the United States and the I.R.G.C.-affiliated media outlets have dutifully circulated their conspiracy theories. For example, Fars News today quoted Jawad al-Talabwi, the commander of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the most powerful Iraqi militia group that has close links with the I.R.G.C.’s Quds Force, as accusing the U.S. military of providing assistance to the Islamic State terrorists in the city of 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 – such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization – that are playing the most prominent role in western Mosul.

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.” But while the PMF is now an integral part of the Iraqi armed forces, some PMF units still receive their guidance from Soleimani rather than the Iraqi government. Many PMF units have also been accused of committing rights abuses – including war crimes such abductions, extrajudicial killings, torture and property destruction.

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