BAGHDAD // Iraqi paramilitary forces have been ordered to retake the town of Tal Afar and prevent ISIL fighters from fleeing west from Mosul towards Syria, a spokesman said on Tuesday.
The Hashed Al Shaabi, an umbrella organisation for the paramilitary forces that are dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, has played major roles in previous battles against ISIL, but been largely on the sidelines since the operation to retake Mosul was announced on Monday last week.
The Hashed leadership has ordered “us to assume the mission of liberating the Tal Afar district”, said Jawwad Al Tulaibawi, a spokesman for the Asaib Ahl Al Haq militia.
The mission will be to “cut off and prevent the escape of [ISIL] toward Syria and fully isolate Mosul from Syria”.
The Hashed’s involvement in the Mosul operation, especially in eventual fighting inside the city itself, has been a source of contention due to its alleged record of abuses against Sunnis.
Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arab politicians have opposed the Hashed’s participation in the operation, as has Turkey, which has a military presence east of Mosul despite repeated demands by Baghdad to withdraw its forces.
Tensions have risen between Iraq and Turkey, whose foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned on Tuesday that if there is a threat to Ankara, “we are ready to use all our resources including a ground operation”.
Tal Afar was a Shiite-majority town before it was overrun by ISIL in 2014, and its recapture is a main goal of Shiite militia forces.
Iraqi forces were inching to within striking distance of eastern Mosul on Tuesday as defence chiefs from the US-led anti-ISIL coalition met in Paris to review the offensive.
With the Mosul battle in its second week, French president Francois Hollande called for the coalition to prepare for the aftermath of the city’s likely recapture and the next stages of the war against ISIL.
“The recapture is not an end in itself,” Mr Hollande warned. “We must already anticipate the consequences of the fall of Mosul.”
“What is at stake is the political future of the city, the region and Iraq,” he added, calling for “all ethnic and religious groups” to have a say in the future running of Mosul.
France is also keen to tackle the extremists’ Syrian stronghold, Raqqa, where a large number of French foreign fighters in ISIL ranks are stationed. But although the militants are outnumbered in Mosul by about one to 10, there are insufficient forces currently available to take on the estimated 3,000-4,000 ISIL fighters in Raqqa.
The meeting in Paris came as forces from Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) retook areas close to the eastern outskirts of Mosul.
“On our front, we have advanced to within five or six kilometres of Mosul,” said their commander, General Abdelghani Al Assadi, from the Christian town of Bartalla.
“We must now coordinate with forces on other fronts to launch a coordinated” attack.
* Agence France-Presse