Shia Militias to Support Iraqi Offensive in Mosul

The Popular Mobilization Force will be backing the security forces on the western front, along two axis, the first is Tal Afar and the second is to support the forces going into the center of Mosul
Iraqi security forces advance in Qayara, south of Mosul, to attack IS militants in Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 18.Iraqi security forces advance in Qayara, south of Mosul, to attack IS militants in Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 18.

A Shia paramilitary force said late on Tuesday it will support the Iraqi Army’s offensive on Mosul, the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.

The Popular Mobilization Force said it will back government forces advancing toward Tal Afar, about 55 kilometers west of Mosul.

Tal Afar’s population was a mix of Sunni and Shia ethnic Turkmens until Shias fled the town after IS’s ultra-hardline militants took over the region in 2014, declaring a ‘’caliphate’’ over parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria, Reuters reported.

The PMF also said it will be supporting the armed forces advancing into the city of Mosul from the west.

“The PMF will be backing the security forces on the western front … along two axis, the first is Tal Afar and the second is to support the forces going into the center of Mosul,” a statement on the paramilitary force’s website said.

Shias make up a majority in Iraq but Sunnis are predominant in the north and the west.

The PMF officially reports to the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who announced on Monday the start of the offensive on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Abadi had sought to allay fears of sectarian bloodshed, saying that the army and the police will be the only forces allowed to enter the city.

The PMF was formed in 2014 to help push back IS’s sweeping advance through the northern and western provinces.

  IS Likely to Wield Chemical Weapons

The United States said it expects IS to use crude chemical weapons as it tries to repel an Iraqi-led offensive on the city of Mosul, although US officials say that the group’s technical ability to develop such weapons is highly limited.

US forces have begun to regularly collect shell fragments to test for possible chemical agents, given IS’s use of mustard agent in the months before Monday’s launch of the Mosul offensive, one official said.

In a previously undisclosed incident, US forces confirmed the presence of a sulfur mustard agent on IS munition fragments on Oct. 5, a second official said. IS had targeted local forces, not US or coalition troops.

US officials do not believe IS has been successful so far at developing chemical weapons with particularly lethal effects, meaning that conventional weapons are still the most dangerous threat for advancing Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as any foreign advisers who get close enough.

Sulfur mustard agents can cause blistering on exposed skin and lungs. At low doses, however, that would not be deadly.

  Human Shields

The fall of Mosul would signal the defeat of the ultra-hardline militants in Iraq but could also lead to land grabs and sectarian bloodletting between groups that fought one another after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

US President Barack Obama estimated on Thursday that perhaps 1 million civilians were still in Mosul, creating a challenge for Iraq and its western backers trying to expel the group through force.

“If we aren’t successful in helping ordinary people as they’re fleeing from ISIL, then that makes us vulnerable to seeing ISIL return,” Obama told reporters in Washington.

The International Organization for Migration’s Iraq chief, Thomas Weiss, said on Tuesday he expected IS militants to use Mosul residents as human shields and lent his voice to concerns about the dangers of chemical agents.

“The IOM had not managed to procure many gas masks yet, despite those risks,” Weiss said from Baghdad.

“We also fear, and there has been some evidence that ISIL might be using chemical weapons. Children, the elderly, disabled, will be particularly vulnerable.”

Attacking Iraqi forces are still 20 to 50 km from the city itself and US officials believe that IS is most likely to use chemical weapons later in the campaign, in what could be a difficult, protracted battle.

The leader of IS was reported to be among thousands of hardline militants still in the city, suggesting the group would go to great lengths to repel the coalition.

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