A commander of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) has said that the United States, Turkey and the leadership of the Iraqi Kurdistan are pressuring the Baghdad government not to allow the paramilitary forces to participate in upcoming military operation to liberate the city of Tal Afar, Fars News Agency reported. Jawad al-Talibawi, a spokesman for the armed wing of Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq, added that P.M.F. units have received “orders” forbidding them from taking part in the operation. The militia commander urged Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to honor his pledge and allow the paramilitary forces to join the Iraqi armed forces to retake Tal Afar from the Islamic State. Asaib Ahl al-Haq is one of powerful P.M.F. Shiite militia groups that have close links with the the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) Quds Force.
Comment: Talibawi’s remarks come just a day after P.M.F. Spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi announced that the paramilitary forces will be part of the Tal Afar operation. “In the operation to liberate Tal Afar, all Hashd al-Shaabi [P.M.F.] forces, the Iraqi army, the federal police and also counterterrorism and rapid-reaction forces will participate,” Assadi was quoted as saying in Fars News Agency yesterday. “[Prime Minister] Haider al-Abadi, the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, directly ordered the joint operation command two weeks ago to ask all military units that will take part in the battle to recapture Tal Afar to be ready. And these units are preparing now.” Assadi emphasized that the P.M.F. forces are the “primary pillar” of the Iraqi armed forces and part of the country’s security system.
Tal Afar has been a major Islamic State stronghold since 2014. Once inhabited by both Sunnis and Shiites, the population in the Turkmen-majority city is now largely Sunni. The P.M.F. forces – which are dominated by Shiite groups supported by Iran – have played a prominent role in the military campaign against the Islamic State in western Mosul. In recent months, P.M.F. forces have captured strategic regions in western Mosul and along the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The P.M.F.’s increasing role in western Mosul, particularly in Tal Afar, 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 P.M.F.’s advances into Tal Afar. While some P.M.F. units are Iraqi nationalists and follow Iraq’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, what makes Iraqi Sunnis and regional Sunni states particularly worried is that, despite P.M.F.’s diversity, it is the Iran-backed militia units that are playing a leading role in western Mosul.
The news also comes at a time that tension between P.M.F. units and the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) is escalating in the run-up to the latter’s plan to hold an independence referendum next month. On Wednesday, K.R.G. President Masoud Barzani said his government will not allow P.M.F. forces to enter Kurdish regions.