(Reuters) Convoys of military vehicles loaded with Shi’ite paramilitary fighters hurtled across desert terrain in northwestern Iraq towards ISIL-held city of Tal Afar, chanting religious slogans and covering their faces to keep out the dust.
After routing the militants from an air base south of Tal Afar several days ago, a coalition of Shi’ite paramilitaries known as the Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), is preparing to finish the task of encircling the city.
“Our goal is clear: it is to liberate all Iraqi land and sever supply routes from Raqqa in Syria,” said commader Abu Mohammed al-Attabi, at the base from which a silo in the centre of Tal Afar is clearly visible. Mortar rounds hit the base perimeter from time to time.
Astride the main road between Mosul and Syria, Tal Afar has been a centre for insurgents in Iraq since 2003, producing several senior ISIL members and many of its foot soldiers.
Once Tal Afar has been completely surrounded, local fighters under the command of the Hashid will be first to enter the city, which had a mixed population of mainly Shi’ite and Sunni Turkmen before ISIL overran it in 2014.
If they are not able to defeat the militants alone, other groups will join in, said Attabi, who leads a battalion of the Badr Organisation – the most powerful force in the Hashid Shaabi.
Tal Afar saw some of the worst sectarian violence after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, so the Hashid’s role has raised fears that Shi’ite Turkmen who were displaced by ISIL will seek revenge against Sunni Turkmen who stayed.
Amnesty International says that in previous campaigns the PMF has committed serious human rights violations, including war crimes against civilians fleeing ISIL territory, although there have been no such reports during the current campaign.
Turkey, which sees itself as protector of Iraq’s Turkmen minority, has threatened to respond if Shi’ite militias “cause terror” in Tal Afar and recently reinforced its troops on the Iraqi border.
Attabi dismissed concerns that Hashid fighters were out for revenge and warned Turkey against intervening: “We are Iraqis, and sons of our country, and consider the entry of any foreign force an affront.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tried to allay fears of ethnic and sectarian killings in Tal Afar, saying any force sent to recapture it would reflect the city’s diversity.