Hashd units besiege the outskirts of Tal Afar. Photo: Hashd
The Iraqi Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries will participate in the upcoming operations to remove Islamic State (ISIS) militants from their remaining strongholds of Hawija and Tal Afar. This resurrects questions about the wisdom of having these Shiite-majority paramilitaries, some of them quite sectarian, fight in Sunni-majority areas.
The Hashd were excluded from the major operation to recapture the city of Mosul over fears that it would spark a sectarian conflict. The paramilitaries did surround the Turkmen-majority town of Tal Afar west of Mosul and cut ISIS off from the Syrian border early in that operation. The Iraqi government said that only regular Iraqi forces would actually enter the town itself to remove the militants. That hasn't yet happened.
Iraqi armour has been deployed
to the area in preparation for an operation there. The Hashd will participate
, at the very least to support the operation.
“The Tal Afar operation will reportedly follow the same pattern as Mosul, meaning the Hashd will be holding and taking the perimeter while only the army, police and Golden Division will actually enter the town,” Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst who runs the Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English.
“Keeping the Hashd out of Mosul was partly in order not to provoke any sectarian tension, but also part of [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-] Abadi's plan for quite some time now to have the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) be in the lead to increase the standing and support for his government over the Hashd,” he added.
Wing went on to point out that the Hashd's Al Abbas Division might be permitted to enter the town itself.
“Al Abbas Division follows Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani as opposed to the pro-Iran Hashd units and has worked closely with the ISF before,” he explained.
The commander of Nineveh operations and mayor of Tal Afar when it was overrun by insurgents more than 10 years ago has downplayed the intensity of the fight for Tal Afar.
"I don't expect it will be a fierce battle even though the enemy is surrounded," Major-General Najm al-Jabouri told Reuters earlier this week.
The Mosul offensive took nine months to carry out, but Jabouri doesn't see that being the case to the west.
"The enemy is very worn out," added the seasoned general. "I know from the intelligence reports that their morale is low."
The Musings on Iraq analyst is unsure whether a similar strategy will be pursued in the recapture of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, where the Hashd are building up their forces in the village of Bashir in preparation for an operation there.
Presently coordination between the Hashd and Peshmerga on Hawija
has proven difficult. One Peshmerga official told Rudaw that lack of unity among the different Hashd groups makes them hard to coordinate with. This may further complicate any coordinated operation between the Hashd, Iraqi Army and Peshmerga in Hawija.
The recapture of Hawija, which is situated west of Kirkuk, has been repeatedly delayed by Baghdad. It’s presently being delayed in favour of the Tal Afar operation and operations against ISIS pockets in Anbar province. As long as ISIS remains in Hawija, it poses a threat to the security of Kirkuk.
Regarding Tal Afar, Iraq analyst Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Rudaw English that the Hashd “have always wanted to take control” of that area.
“They might let the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (Golden Division) do the hard work for them, but they will end up in charge of the area,” he predicted.
Knights doubts Turkey will militarily intervene to stop a Hashd takeover of Tal Afar. When Ankara deployed tanks to Silopi late last year it said it would take any necessary measures against the Hashd in Tal Afar if they harmed the town's Sunni Turkmen-majority population.
“Turkey will focus on Shingal and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK),” Knights concluded.
Hashd control of Tal Afar and its surroundings could give the Iran-backed groups in the paramilitary access to Syria, where some are eager to go fight on the side of other Iranian-backed Shiite groups, as well as a foothold in the Sunni-majority Nineveh region.
Wing went on to outline how “perceptions of the ISF and Hashd are all over the place.”
He pointed to the Golden Division as “a mixed unit, best and most professional” while contrasting it with the Federal Police, who “are full of Badr members.”
“When people talk of the Hashd they usually only mean the Shiite ones and the ones that are pro-Iran like Asaib Ahl Al-Haq,” he elaborated. “They don't usually mention the various units like the Al Abbas and even less about all the Sunni units. That's especially true in the West.”
“All the threats, expulsions and killings of ISIS suspects and families outside of Mosul are being done by Sunni Hashd and tribes,” he explained.
“So in general, the ISF are considered a national force versus the pro-Iran Hashd which are seen as sectarian,” Wing concluded. “But that's the simplistic view, because Iraq is, as always, complicated.”