Iran-backed Shi­ites join Iraqi troops in Mo­sul fight

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUNOZ

U.S.-backed Iraqi troops are fight­ing side by side with Shi­ite para­mil­i­tary forces backed by Iran for the first time in the cam­paign to take back Mo­sul, deep­en­ing U.S. fears that Tehran is claim­ing a greater role in the crit­i­cal bat­tle to oust Is­lamic State mil­i­tants from Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city.

Over the past week, Iraqi gov­ern­ment units have qui­etly ad­vanced along­side units of the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces, the large coali­tion of Iraqi paramil­i­taries com­pris­ing pri­mar­ily mili­tias sup­ported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are jointly ad­vanc­ing on the north­ern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, less than 50 miles west of Mo­sul, Pen­tagon of­fi­cials con­firmed.

Those units are try­ing to cut off pos­si­ble es­cape routes for Is­lamic State fight­ers be­tween western Mo­sul and the Syr­ian bor­der, as Iraqi and Kur­dish forces con­tinue to press into the city’s north­ern, eastern and south­ern bor­ders.

But this min­gling of Iraqi gov­ern­ment troops and the Shi­ite mili­tias could put U.S. com­man­ders in the un­com­fort­able po­si­tion of hav­ing to pro­vide Amer­i­can air sup­port for mili­tias with clear links to the Ira­nian regime, some­thing Wash­ing­ton fiercely op­poses.

U.S. com­man­ders have made clear that no Amer­i­can as­sets would be used to as­sist or re­in­force ad­vanc­ing mili­tias fight­ing un­der the ban­ner of the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces, a U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial told The Wash­ing­ton Times. That pol­icy will re­main in place de­spite the pres­ence of Iraqi troops within the mili­tia’s ranks, the of­fi­cial said.

It is un­clear how U.S. forces would re­spond if the Iraqi troops em­bed­ded with the mili­tias called for Amer­i­can airstrikes, since Amer­i­can as­sets are tasked with de­fend­ing Iraqi and coali­tion forces.

“That is go­ing to be a chal­lenge,” the of­fi­cial said.

Po­ten­tial re­sponses by U.S. forces to at­tacks on em­bed­ded Iraqi troops with the mili­tias would not be lim­ited to Amer­i­can fight­ers and bombers, a sec­ond U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial said. Armed Amer­i­can drones and U.S. ar­tillery bat­ter­ies in and around Tal Afar also could be used to de­fend Iraqi forces fight­ing along­side the mili­tias, the of­fi­cial said last Mon­day.

“The Iraqis have [jet] fight­ers too,” the of­fi­cial noted.

The mili­tias, which are not of­fi­cially part of the Iraqi armed forces but fall un­der the com­mand of Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi, have played an in­te­gral role in the fight against the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. They have played a ma­jor role in the re­cap­ture of the ma­jor Iraqi cities of Ra­madi and Fal­lu­jah from the ter­ror­ist group’s con­trol.

U.S. com­man­ders in Iraq have de­ferred to Bagh­dad’s de­ci­sion to in­cor­po­rate the Shi­ite-dom­i­nated mili­tia groups into the Mo­sul fight and re­main op­ti­mistic that those forces will ad­here to Iraq’s chain of com­mand and not to their Ira­nian ad­vis­ers.

But the mili­tia’s vic­to­ries, par­tic­u­larly in Fal­lu­jah, have been tainted by re­ports of egre­gious hu­man rights abuses and sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence against Sunni civil­ians by the Shi­ite groups al­lied with Tehran af­ter the city fell.

Sep­a­rately, Is­lamic State fight­ers ap­peared to be try­ing to di­vert the pres­sure build­ing on their Mo­sul strong­hold by launch­ing sui­cide at­tacks in Fal­lu­jah and the Shi­ite holy city of Kar­bala.

Two sui­cide car bombs ripped through Fal­lu­jah’s city cen­ter, killing two Iraqi po­lice of­fi­cers and in­jur­ing 17 oth­ers, in­clud­ing civil­ians, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported. It was the first attack in the city since Iraqi forces lib­er­ated it from Is­lamic State con­trol in June.

The at­tacks in Fal­lu­jah and Kar­bala, along with Is­lamic State as­saults on Kirkuk, Sin­jar and Rutba last month, forced Iraqi com­man­ders to move troops from the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion to quell those at­tacks, which placed more re­spon­si­bil­ity on the mili­tia’s shoul­ders.

But Bagh­dad’s de­ci­sion to in­clude Iraqi mil­i­tary units into the mili­tia’s of­fen­sive was a pos­i­tive sign that the para­mil­i­tary groups were re­frain­ing from such sec­tar­ian at­tacks in the Mo­sul of­fen­sive, Pen­tagon of­fi­cials said pri­vately.

Pres­sure from the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Com­mit­tee, the gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned com­mis­sion tasked with over­see­ing the mili­tias, as well as Ira­nian mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers on the ground to avoid any sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence, has res­onated with both Sunni and Shi­ite mili­tia lead­ers.

This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

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