Qayyarah- Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces militias said they started an offensive on Saturday against ISIS positions in the town of Tal Afar west of Mosul, assisting in a campaign to take back the city.
Earlier announcements by the militias on advancing toward Mosul, has drawn warnings from human rights groups concerned about sectarian violence in the mainly Sunni province.
Shiites make up a majority in Iraq but Sunnis are predominant in the north and the west.
The PMF, a coalition of mostly Iranian-trained militias, said it had started moving early on Saturday toward Tal Afar from positions south of Mosul, ISIS’s last major city stronghold in Iraq.
“The operation aims to cut supplies between Mosul and Raqqa, tighten the siege of ISIS in Mosul and liberate Tal Afar,” PMF spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi told AFP, adding that the operation aimed to retake the towns of Hatra and Tal Abta as well as Tal Afar.
The operation could bring the fighting perilously close to the ancient city of Hatra, located northeast of the town of the same name, a UNESCO world heritage site that has already been vandalized by ISIS.
The involvement of Shiite militias in the Mosul operation has been a source of contention, although some of the PMF’s top commanders insist they do not plan to enter the largely Sunni city.
Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arab politicians have opposed their involvement, and Baghdad promised earlier that only government forces will enter Mosul.
“The Iranians and the PMF plan to take Tal Afar because of the Shiite significance and use that as a way to angle in to Mosul,” said a senior Iraqi official who asked not to be named.
“But they also want to use it as a way to angle into the Syria fight.”
Iraqi and Western military sources say there has been debate about whether or not to close off the western route in and out of Mosul.
Leaving it open would offer ISIS militants a chance to retreat, potentially sparing civilians inside the city who might otherwise be trapped in a bloody fight to the finish, according to Reuters.
Moreover, the PMF’s movement towards Tal Afar is considered a strategic target for Iran, especially in light of news that Tehran is seeking to provide a direct land route to Syria.