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The Battle for Mosul: Concerns over the involvement of Shia militias

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the powerful Iraqi Shia militias who operate under the banner of the Hashd Al-Sha’abi known as the “Popular Mobilisation Forces” or PMF

As we near the end of the third week of the Iraqi government’s US-backed offensive to dislodge Daesh from Mosul, there is no clear end in sight. Although Iraqi Security Forces edge ever closer to Mosul’s eastern districts, they are lagging quite far behind in southern sectors.

But what is likely to happen? Who are the main actors involved? What will be the overall human cost of this operation, both now and in the foreseeable future?

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the powerful Iraqi Shia militias who operate under the banner of the Hashd Al-Sha’abi known as the “Popular Mobilisation Forces” or PMF. The PMF are heavily backed by Shia Iran, and have been involved in numerous sectarian atrocities that have been described as “war crimes” by organisations such as Amnesty International.

In an attempt to allay fears of war crimes being inflicted on Mosul’s population of 1.5 million, most of whom are Sunni Arabs, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has said that only the Iraqi Security Forces will enter the city to do battle with Daesh.

That sounds all well and good, but did you know that the post-2003 Iraqi military and federal police are staffed by thousands of Shia militiamen? That’s right – just like the Israeli Defence Force was formed out of the Haganah and other Zionist militias, the Iraqi Security Forces absorbed many Shia militias with ties to Iran, drawing heavily on such groups as the Badr Organisation currently led by Hadi Al-Amiri.

Al-Amiri is not only the chief of one of the largest and most powerful militias in the land but has held ministerial positions, meaning that his influence and power pervade the post-US invasion Iraqi order. He even fought against his own country during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Also part of the PMF are men like Qais Al-Khaz’ali who heads Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, and Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandes of the Iraqi Hezbollah, a US designated terrorist whose forces currently enjoy American air support in the fight against Daesh.

By doing little to leverage Baghdad to rein in these militias both in the Iraqi Security Forces and PMF, the United States and its Western allies are essentially turning a blind eye to one set of terrorists in order to fight another. That spells for disastrous consequences in the long-term, as we are regrettably about to witness in the coming months.

The United Nations have said that they may have to deal with over a million refugees displaced from Mosul, which may lead to the world’s largest humanitarian operation being put into effect. This provides us with a glimpse of the grim realities facing us if policymakers don’t marry a political strategy to their current military solution.

Videos have already emerged of children being abused and sometimes even beaten with hammers by militiamen, whether those responsible were from the Iraqi Security Forces or PMF. There can be little doubt that atrocities similar to what has already occurred will be repeated on a larger scale once fighting truly begins in Mosul itself.

As such, would it not be wiser to entrust Sunni forces with the task of liberating their own lands? After all, it was Sunni fighters who defeated Al-Qaeda in 2008, not these militias and certainly not the incompetent Iraqi Security Forces who lost Mosul and a third of Iraq to Daesh in 2014.

Failing to involve the Sunnis and make them equal partners in Iraq’s future will mean that Daesh will not be defeated even if they lose Mosul. Instead, they will continue to wreak havoc and terror while the world wonders what on earth they were thinking by entrusting the recapture of Mosul to violent extremists.

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