Iran-trained militias join US-backed Mosul campaign, flying Shiite flags
Gun trucks and humvees streamed north on a highway heading to Mosul flying the banners of Shiite militias along with Iraqi flags while blaring religious songs. The convoys were the first clear sign of a new player on the battlefield in the US-backed offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State: Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of Shiite militias. Although it reports officially to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the coalition is mostly made up of groups trained by Iran and loyal to its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
They have close ties with General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Brigade, the extra-territorial arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. He was seen touring the frontlines around Mosul last week. Among the banners that could be seen flying from artillery cannons, communication towers and buildings recently retaken from Islamic State were those of Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, two of the main Iranian-backed groups, alongside the Badr Organization, considered the largest. Dozens of holes dug on the side of the highway for several kilometers indicated how heavily mined the highway had been only a couple of days before and the efforts the force had gone through to clear the road. One of the first vil- lages retaken by the PMF since announcing combat operations on Saturday was Ain Nasir, some 30 kilometers south of Mosul. One fighter who participated in the battle to retake the village on Saturday night said that Islamic State had put up little resistance and that fighters had taken several villagers hostage during their retreat, using them as human shields. “We are fighting to push Daesh out of Iraq,” said Adel Khiali, 26, a PMF fighter affiliated with the Badr Organization who was formerly an Iraqi army soldier. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The Iraqi army and federal police came in to help clear the area after the PMF, Khiali said. Still, as Khiali spoke, at least one mortar round hit the village, indicating that the area was not yet secure. There was a sense of resentment among some fighters on the battlefield on Sunday that the PMF have been misrepresented and that their sacrifices have not been appreciated. “We fight to help people return to their villages and they call us militias,” said Ali Khiali, a 40- year old PMF fighter affiliated with the Badr Organization. “Is that fair?” Adel and Ali Khiali are brothers.
The UN in July said it had a list of more than 640 Sunni Muslim men and boys reportedly abducted by Shiite militiamen in Falluja, a former militant stronghold west of Baghdad, and about 50 others who were summarily executed or tortured to death. Abadi’s Shiite-led government and the PMF say a limited number of violations had occurred and were investigated, but they deny abuses were widespread and systematic. But Amnesty International says that in previous campaigns, the Shiite militias have committed “serious human rights violations, including war crimes” against civilians fleeing Islamic State-held territory. The flying of Shiite flags by the militias and also some regular army and police units in the mostly Sunni region around Mosul has been a cause of concern for local officials. But the Popular Mobilization forces have not been linked to any sectarian incidents so far in the campaign that started on Oct 17 with air and ground support from the US-led coalition. “It’s not right what they say about us,” Adel said. “When they call us militias it’s like they are insulting us.” Though Sunday was only the second day that the PMF had officially joined the battle against Islamic State, the banners and slogans of the organization made it clear that theirs is a pan-Shiite cause that may not end at Iraq’s borders. — Reuters
QARYAT BAZWAYA: Members of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) drive near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edges of Mosul, tightening the noose on Mosul as the offensive to retake the Islamic State group stronghold entered its third week yesterday. —AFP