BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A coalition of mainly Shi’ite Iraqi militias advancing on the Islamic State-held town of Tal Afar plans to seize a nearby military air base from the jihadists, the first time the Iran-backed forces have targeted such a base, militia officials said on Tuesday.
The Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary forces are deployed in the arid region west of Mosul as part of a wider military campaign to retake the largest city under Islamic State control in Iraq or neighboring Syria.
The town of Tal Afar, and its air base, are located on the highway west of Mosul. Capturing them would help cut Islamic State supply lines between Mosul and its Syrian territories, and offer a base for the Hashid’s stated plan ultimately to take their battle with Islamic State into Syria.
But the advance by the mainly Shi’ite force toward Tal Afar, which had a mixed population of mainly Shi’ite and Sunni Turkmen before Islamic State captured it in 2014, has raised fears of sectarian strife and alarmed neighboring Turkey.
President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was reinforcing its troops on the border with Iraq and would respond if the Shi’ite militias “cause terror” in Tal Afar.
Capturing an air base would also point to the growing muscle of the Hashid forces, which officially report to the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi but are also backed by Tehran and often fly the banners of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
“Now we are 25 km (15 miles) from the Tal Afar air base,” said Kareem Alewi, a commander of one of Hashid Shaabi brigades and a member of the Badr Organisation, the most powerful force within the paramilitary alliance.
“Tal Afar air base has strategic importance for us considering that it’s on the Iraq-Syrian border, so it will be a general base for all factions of the Hashid Shaabi and it will be the launch pad for these forces to protect the Syrian-Iraqi borders,” he told Reuters.
He said it would be the first military base controlled by the Hashid, who could take their fight across the frontier once Mosul is taken. “If Iraq is liberated, no doubt our second goal will be to pursue Daesh (Islamic State) inside Syria,” he said.
A spokesman for another Shi’ite force in the Hashid Shaabi, the Kata’ib Hezbollah, confirmed that control of the air base at Tal Afar was a “one of our basic aims”.
Jafaar al-Hussaini suggested the base could then be handed over to Iraqi security forces rather than retained by the Hashid force. “The issue may be decided later, and we have many options,” he said.
Two years after Islamic State jihadists swept through north Iraq, the U.S.-backed campaign to retake Mosul has the potential to reshape the country, with Kurds from the northeast and Shi’ite forces mainly from the south expanding their influence.
Abadi has sought to calm fears that the operation to recapture Tal Afar would ignite sectarian tension, or escalate problems with Turkey, saying the attacking force will force will reflect the town’s religious and ethnic make-up.
Hussaini said there was no final agreement for the Hashid Shaabi to go into Tal Afar, but it had two brigades made up of Turkmens - both Shi’ites and Sunnis - originally from the town who could take part “to overcome the sensitivities over the liberation of Tal Afar”.
“They could carry out this operation, as part of the Hashid Shaabi,” he said. “The two brigades could participate with the security forces entering Tal Afar.”
Zuhair al-Jabouri, spokesman for a newly formed Sunni force known as the Nineveh guards, said the government “should be aware of the sensitivity of Tal Afar” and assign the upper hand to the army in the operation to recapture it.
If the Hashid forces entered the town there would be “revenge atrocities against Sunni residents who are seen by the Shi’ite militias, including the Shi’ite Turkmen Hashid groups, as pro-Daesh (Islamic State)”.
That would give Turkey a pretext to intervene on behalf of Sunni Turkmen. “This will convert Nineveh into an arena of conflict between regional powers and push Iraq into a dark tunnel,” he told Reuters.
Amnesty International says that in previous campaigns the Shi’ite militias have committed serious human rights violations, including war crimes against civilians fleeing Islamic State territory.
The U.N. said in July it had a list of more than 640 Sunni men and boys reportedly abducted by a Shi’ite militia in Falluja and about 50 others summarily executed or tortured to death.
The government and the Hashid Shaabi say a limited number of violations occurred and were investigated, but they deny abuses were widespread.
Jabouri and Sunni parliamentarian Abdul Rahman al-Lwezi, from Mosul, both said Abadi had told Tal Afar tribal leaders at a meeting last Thursday that only Turkmen members of the Hashid force would be allowed to enter the town.
Alewi, the Badr commander, said Hashid forces cut the road west from Tal Afar to Syria early on Tuesday and were now focusing on the air base and the town.
Tal Afar has a large concentration of Islamic State fighters and is believed to be heavily fortified, but Alewi said it could be taken with relative ease.
“The Hashid Shaabi force is a conquering force, a major force which has brigades, weapons, lethal rockets ... and has the ability to advance quickly,” he said.
Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Giles Elgood