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Iraq could split if Shi'ite militias enter Mosul - Sunni politician

AMMAN (Reuters) - Iraq is at risk of partition and the worst sectarian bloodletting since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion if Shi’ite paramilitary units get involved in the fight against Islamic State for Mosul, a senior Sunni Iraqi politician said on Monday.

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims from Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) march during a parade marking the annual al-Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Baghdad, Iraq July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily/Files

Iran-backed, Shi’ite-led Popular Mobilization forces, or Hashid Shaabi in Arabic, who are supported by the Shi’ite-led Baghdad government want to play a bigger role in the offensive to regain Islamic State’s last major city stronghold in Iraq.

But Khamis Khanjar, also a businessman who financed a 3,000 strong predominately Sunni Turkish-trained force known as the Nineveh Guards Force, says it should lead the offensive - alongside the Iraqi army - and take control of the city after the militants are driven out.

“Everyone is looking for salvation from Daesh...but after Daesh is defeated a new dangerous phase will begin if the United States and the government do not address Sunni grievances. This could threaten the future of the Iraqi state,” Khanjar said in an interview in Amman.

“The fear for the future of the country, the threat, is more than any other time.”

The city of Mosul is already ringed to the north, south and east by Iraqi government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraq’s U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service breached Islamic State defences in east Mosul at the end of October.

Khanjar, who has close ties with regional powers Turkey, the Gulf and Jordan and aspirations to lead the Sunni community, said the consequences of Hashid Shaabi entering the city would be catastrophic

“The fear is the repeat of the same massacres and ugly violations committed by the Hashid Shaabi,” Khanjar said.

International human rights groups and the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner have accused Hashid Shaabi of abuses against Sunni civilians in towns and villages retaken from Islamic State.

Hashid Shaab leaders deny that their groups mistreat civilians. They say the missing men were Islamic State militants killed in battle.

Khanjar said the Nineveh Guards Force, which is mainly drawn from the Mosul area, was ready to fight.

“They are present in the thousands,” said Khanjar who met the forces and their commanders recently adding their presence would assuage widespread fears of revenge.

He said the failure of the Baghdad government to support the force and lack of U.S. support was a mistake that fuelled suspicions that Sunni concerns were not being addressed in the Mosul campaign.

Some of Iraq’s top Sunni leaders would be meeting in Amman this week to chart a political strategy to present to key Kurdish and Shi’ite political parties, he said.

Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, accuse Shi’ite leaders of marginalising them through sectarian policies, allegations Baghdad’s Shi’ite-led government denies.

The politician said he supported a federation in which Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds could all run their own parts of the country without a formal break up.

“All the laws make the complexion of the state a religious Shi’ite one, where Sunnis are more marginalized so we have no solution but to go to autonomous regions to protect us or else partition,” Khanjar said.

Editing by Anna Willard