The Hashd al-Shaabi militias fighting ISIS. AFP File Photo.
Over the weekend the Kurdish Peshmerga managed to launch a successful offensive to recapture the ISIS-occupied village of Bashir, 20 miles south of Kirkuk. The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashd al-Shaabi) failed in their attempts to singlehandedly recapture that same village over the course of the past several months.
The Peshmerga were given air support by the US-led coalition, which hasn’t provided that to the Hashd offensives against ISIS-held areas: the Shiite militia has not wanted that support anyway. Consequently, the Hashd tried to recapture the village on their own, losing scores of fighters in the process.
This is reminiscent of what happened in Tikrit back in March 2015, albeit on a much smaller scale. On that occasion the Hashd al-Shaabi sought to spearhead the liberation of Tikrit from ISIS, with the Iraqi Army following their lead and the US coalition excluded.
After a month of trying they failed and Tikrit was only liberated from ISIS after the coalition gave close air support to an Iraqi Army offensive there.
The largest city the Iraqi military has managed to force ISIS out of was Anbar's provincial capital Ramadi late last December. That operation saw an elite counter-terrorism unit of the Iraqi Army spearhead an offensive with close coalition air support, which destroyed large parts of the city in the process.
Hashd offensives against ISIS in Anbar have been discouraged since day one by many observers who warn that having Shiite-majority militiamen march into Sunni-majority parts of Iraq will have incendiary effects and could even spark a general Sunni revolt -- something which could actually benefit ISIS, which has shrewdly exploited Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions to its advantage in the past.
While ISIS has been forced from Ramadi by the Iraqi military -- which is still fighting ISIS elsewhere in Anbar -- Fallujah remains under the group’s control. Only a few hundred ISIS militants are estimated to be holed-up in the city, with the Hashd surrounding it and cutting it off (which was the plan from the beginning), resulting in very disturbing reports that some of the city's residents are actually starving to death under the siege. This is certainly a disturbing precedent to contemplate for Mosul, where a Sunni-majority population is unlikely to welcome a force which includes Hashd militiamen into their city – even if it is for the strict ad-hoc purpose of forcing ISIS militants out of it.
Speaking of uprisings, one of the primary reasons the month-old Iraqi Army's offensive against ISIS-held villages on the Makhmour Front has gotten off to such a painstakingly slow start has been the fact that the local populations haven't risked mounting uprisings against their ISIS occupiers, likely because they are not certain that they will be liberated quickly by the military once they do so. It is crucial that those undertaking the arduous task of forcing ISIS from that city are either welcomed by the population or at least not opposed by them. Hashd would likely be opposed and its participation would likely be more of a hindrance than a help.
Bashir is a Shiite majority village of no more than 1,800 families which Hashd failed to liberate on their own. Hashd also failed to prove last year that they were up to the task of liberating a Sunni city, Tikrit, on their own. They are therefore unlikely to be up to the task of liberating Mosul, especially without coalition air support, which they are extremely unlikely to seek or receive.
With all that being said it's important to acknowledge that Hashd has played a useful role in this war. When the Iraqi Army was in disarray following the fall of Mosul in the summer of 2014 it was the militiamen of Hashd al-Shaabi who mobilized to ensure ISIS didn't overrun Samarra or try and bomb the al-Askari shrine. Thanks in part to the Hashd al-Shaabi ISIS weren't ever going to be able to overrun Baghdad without being ripped to shreds by the various Shiite militiamen who make up that groups rank-and-file.
None of these are irrelevant or unproductive contributions to the ongoing war effort. However if the Hashd al-Shaabi opt to march north and lay siege to Mosul they will undermine these worthy contributions and possibly even compromise the fragile military-political efforts aimed at completely defeating ISIS for good.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.