Fleeing ISIL fighters, Iran-backed militia and Turkey are all on collision course in Tal Afar, near Mosul

by WorldTribune Staff, October 31, 2016

As the battle for Mosul looms, Middle East watchers are focused on the nearby town of Tal Afar, where Iran and Turkey are making a play for increased influence in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Shi’ite militias, who are backed by Iran, on Oct. 29 began to move toward Tal Afar in an effort to sever the main route for Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) jihadists moving between Mosul and their bases in Syria.

Iraqi Shi'ite militias began an offensive toward Tal Afar on Oct. 29. /Reuters
Iraqi Shi’ite militias began an offensive toward Tal Afar on Oct. 29. /Reuters

The move is likely to draw Turkey deeper into the regional battle.

Tal Afar, a former Ottoman outpost, has a mostly ethnic Turkmen population.

The state-run Anadolu agency reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that his government will be closely monitoring the behavior of the militia.

“Tel Afar is an entirely Turkmen town. If Hashd al-Shaabi (Shi’ite militia) starts terrorizing it, then our response will certainly be different,” Erdogan said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi agreed to allow the militias, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units, a secondary role of sealing off the desert areas west of Mosul, but not entering the city itself.

Abadi said the militias could prove useful in catching ISIL fighters trying to flee Mosul, as well as any reinforcements the terrorist group might try to send in from Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria.

The fight against ISIL has given the militias new legitimacy and political power, even though human rights groups have accused them of revenge attacks against Sunnis during previous battles against the terrorist group.

“The Hashd will get the desert,” Staff Gen. Wathiq al Hamdani, the commander of Mosul’s police force said in an interview on Oct. 29. “And it’s a very difficult axis. We have no problem with that, as long as they stay away from the civilians.”

Turkey has stationed troops in Bashiqa, a town north of Mosul, to train Kurdish and Sunni Arab fighters. It did so without the approval of Baghdad’s Shi’ite-led government.

While Sunnis are there now, Tal Afar was a Shi’ite-majority town before it fell to ISIL in 2014.