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Iraqi Shia militias begin Tel Afar offensive

October 29, 2016 at 11:13 am

Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s peshmerga forces take positions as they attack Daesh targets during the operation to retake Iraq’s Mosul from Daesh terrorists, on October 20, 2016. (Feriq Fereç – Anadolu Agency)

Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias said they started an offensive today against Daesh positions west of Mosul, controversially becoming directly involved in a campaign to take back the city.

The operation will target Tel Afar, a Daesh-held area close to Turkey where a sizeable ethnic Sunni Turkmen population lives, which will cause concern in Ankara. The population also include Shia Turkmen who were largely forced from their homes by Daesh.

Earlier announcements by the militias, collectively known as the Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), on advancing toward Mosul have drawn warnings from human rights groups concerned about sectarian violence in the mainly Sunni Arab province.

The PMF said it had started moving earlier today toward Tal Afar from positions south of Mosul, Daesh’s last major city stronghold in Iraq.

“The wounded city of Tal Afar [is among] the cities to be liberated,” said a statement on the PMF’s website.

The PMF officially reports to the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who made them an official part of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) earlier this year. Al-Abadi announced on 17 October the start of an offensive targeting Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, with the backing of a U.S-led coalition.

The PMF was formed after a fatwa, or religious edict, by Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014, who called for a “jihad” against Daesh and for all able-bodied Iraqis to join the ISF. Sistani’s fatwa saw tens of thousands of Shia militants join with unofficial militias instead, only recently given official status.

Amnesty International says that in previous campaigns, Shia militias have committed “serious human rights violations, including war crimes” against civilians fleeing Daesh-held territory.

The UN in July said it had a list of more than 640 Sunni Arab men and boys who had been abducted by the Shia militias near Fallujah, whose fate remains unknown. The UN also said about 50 others were accounted for, as they had been summarily executed or tortured to death.

The government and the PMF say a limited number of violations have occurred and that they were investigated but they deny that abuses were widespread and systematic. They have yet to provide any investigation results, earning a sharp rebuke from Human Rights Watch who claimed Baghdad’s investigation was “mired in secrecy.”