A flag of the Shiite imam Hussein waving on an Iraqi army vehicle in Nasr village near Qayyarah, south of Mosul. Photo by Ayub Nuri
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region-- A senior commander of the powerful Shiite armed group known as Hashd Al-Shaabi rejected on Wednesday that his forces would enter the town of Tal Afar, one of the last holdouts of the Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Speaking to Rudaw TV Wednesday, Hashd spokesman Karim Nuri, who is also a commander of the Iran-backed Shiite group, said their role in the operation would remain logistical, providing the Iraqi army a safe route into the city.
The Hashd forces have stood poised to enter Tal Afar after sweeping into the last villages around the town over the past week, clearing the southern and eastern edges of landmines planted by the ISIS militants.
"We have no plans to move into Tal Afar, but want to assist the city's own forces, the Turkmen Sunnis and Shiites or the Iraqi army to enter the town," Nuri maintained.
"If they didn't succeed, then we are ready to liberate the town," he added.
With a population of nearly 80,000 people, Tal Afar is one of the major Turkmen cities in Iraq, the majority of whom are believed to be Sunnis with a sizeable Shiite population of Turkmen ethnicity.
Sunni leaders in Baghdad voiced concern over the probable incursion of the Shiite force into the town, fearing it would trigger wider sectarian tensions across the volatile Nineveh Plains, which according to them, could complicate the efforts to drive out ISIS from Iraq.
The controversial Hashd al-Shaabi has been one of the more effective forces combating the Islamic militants in Iraq, but its strong ties with Iran's elite revolutionary guards (Pasdaran) which is in the US terror list, has complicated its relation with the international coalition in the country against the ISIS.
US defense officials have in the past rejected cooperation with the Shiite militia, fearing larger Iranian influence in Iraq.
Nuri denied recent reports that the Shiite militia was paving the way across northern Iraq for the Iranian army convoys to reach Syrian regime forces.
"Iran does not need this route. If they want, they have access to airports in Erbil and Sulaimani as they have good relations with the Kurdish parties," Kareem said.