Map created by Rudow
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Dark green – under Peshmerga control
Light green – encircled/battling by Peshmerga
Red – under Iraqi control
Pink – encircled/battling by Iraqi forces
Yellow – under Popular Mobilization Forces control
Orange – encircled/battling by Popular Mobilization Forces
More than a month has passed since Iraqi ground forces backed by Iraqi and Coalition air power launched operation “We Are Coming, Ninevah” to retake the province and its capital of Mosul from the Islamic State, which captured the area in June 2014. For the past two weeks, Iraqi Security Forces have been slogging through brutal and vicious urban combat in the eastern front of the city against a ruthless enemy that has sworn to fight to the death. Meanwhile, to the west of Mosul, Iranian-backed Iraqi military units operating under the aegis of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have been engaged in a multi-phased operation to cut off the Islamic State in Syria, encircle the city of Tal Afar, and push towards the Syrian border.
Approximately 15,000 PMF militiamen out of the estimated 120,000 are participating in the western Mosul axis operation, according to Hezbollah Brigade, a militia that is listed by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The Iranian-backed militias have led the way. These groups include the Badr Organization, Hezbollah Brigades, Harakat al Nujaba, Asaib Ahl al Haq, the Imam Ali Brigades, Saraya Ashura, and Saraya Khurasani. About 3,000 Shiite Turkmen who were expelled from Tal Afar in 2014 and then joined the PMF are also part of the operation, according to an Asaib Ahl al Haq spokesman. The Iraqi Air Force has also supported the PMF in its march towards Tal Afar.
The PMF dominates the battlespace around Tal Afar. A map produced by Rudaw that details the disposition of forces in and around Mosul (embedded above) shows that only PMF forces are operating in the areas west and southwest of Mosul. There are no Iraqi forces deployed near Tal Afar.
The militias have bragged that they are receiving direct support from Iran during their offensive west of Mosul.
“The Iranians are with us,” a Hezbollah Brigades spokesman told the Associated Press on Nov. 21. Earlier in the month, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, commander of the Hezbollah Brigades and PMF deputy commander whom the US Treasury has designated as a terrorist, also thanked Iran’s support, telling pro-Hezbollah media that the PMF receive “fundamental and direct support of Iran,” approved by Baghdad. Muhandis is advisor to Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) external operations wing, the Qods Force.
The Hezbollah Brigades spokesman did not deny receiving full support from Soleimani, including strategic planning. The militia official added that Soleimani had visited a nearby staging ground on Nov. 18. According to Harakat al Nujaba head Akram al Kabi on Nov. 6, Soleimani was back in Iraq, returning from a brief visit to Tehran. Although Soleimani has not gone on his famous social media blitz near the front lines, he has made his presence known. His closest proteges, advisers, and comrades in Iraq are taking the lead in western Mosul operation.
On Nov. 16, nearly two weeks after launching the operation west of Mosul, the PMF captured Tal Afar airport to the south of the town, fully clearing it by Nov. 20 and completing the third phase of the operation, according to the PMF. The following day, the PMF renamed the airport “Martyr Jassim Shabir,” after a PMF commander and member of the IRGC-backed Jund al Imam Brigades who was killed by sniper fire outside of the airport on Nov. 18. The airport would serve as a base of operations for all PMF forces and launching pad to “protect the borders of Syria and Iraq,” according to a commander in the Badr Organization.
The day after the airport’s capture, on Nov. 17, the PMF dispatched a contingent to the west of the town to shut the route to Raqqah, the Islamic State’s stronghold and capital in Syria. Meanwhile, forces spearheaded by Hezbollah Brigades and Badr Organization moved to encircle Tal Afar from the southern and western sectors by Nov. 20, and Kurdish Peshmarga forces closed in from the north, according to an Iranian media outlet reporting from the ground. Muhandis then announced on Nov. 23 that PMF and Peshmarga linked at Sinjar, fully cutting off the Islamic State in Tal Afar and Mosul from Syria and completing the fourth phase of the western Mosul operation. The PMF then plans to cut off the Mosul-Tal Afar route, according to Muhandis, tightening the sieges.
PMF says it will enter Tal Afar
Baghdad officials insisted that the Iraqi army would the lead charge in Tal Afar. Vice President Nujaifi announced on Nov. 17 that an agreement had been brokered by the US for Iraqi army units to enter the town and keep the PMF on the outskirts of the city, according to Al Jazeera. This has allowed Iraqi and US officials to mask the participation of the PMF in operations to retake large Iraqi cities in Sunni areas. Iraqi and US officials have sought to obscure the PMF’s involvement since the battle for Tikrit which ended in April 2015.
However, a spokesman for Hezbollah Brigades said Shiite militias armed with Iranian weaponry will lead the charge into Tal Afar. According to the spokesman, the Badr Brigades is planning to encircle Tal Afar from the east, after which the PMF would “storm” the city.
A contingent of Iraqi army forces is supposed to join the PMF in the Tal Afar offensive. Unnamed sources have reportedly told Lebanese Al Akhbar that Iraqi forces cannot participate in the Tal Afar operation until its forces clear eastern Mosul and free up troops to join the PMF. An Iraqi Kurdish analyst told the Associated Press that the Iraqi army’s 92nd Brigade is planning to join the assault in the coming days.
But the 92nd Brigade betrays the central government’s ability to shape events on the ground and reflects the “army’s will.” The unit is primarily comprised of Shiite Turkmen and is nicknamed the “Hussein Brigade” (after the third Shiite Imam Hussein) and “Tal Afar Brigade.” Being a Shiite from Tal Afar is not a cause for disqualification, of course, but this unit that openly carries Shiite flags would not contribute to Baghdad’s effort to assuage Sunni fears about sectarian abuse and demographic changes. The PMF has rejected these charges, and, in the past, has denied the accusations of sectarian abuses that were documented by human rights organizations, such as in Fallujah this past summer.
Turkey has warned that it would intervene in Tal Afar if the local Sunni Turkmen are abused, and has mobilized its forces in Silopi, a Turkish town by the Iraqi border. Ankara has also warned about the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) transforming Sinjar into a base, as discussed in Al Monitor. President Recep Teyyep Erdogan has actively sought to participate in the Mosul operation, increase his influence in northern Iraq, and blunt Iran’s. Iraqi PMF commanders have warned they could target Turkish forces if they intervene. The back-and-forth has continued as the PMF have surrounded Tal Afar. There is a looming risk of Turkish intervention, yet adding another complication to the war in Iraq.
Turkey’s military intervention would disrupt and complicate the PMF’s plans to take Tal Afar and establish security by the Syrian border. As the PMF completed its encirclement of Tal Afar on Nov. 22, the command issued a statement announcing the fourth phase of its operation to cut the Islamic State from Syria, and declared a zone of operation encompassing the west side of Tal Afar to the Syrian border. The announcement was carried in state-affiliated Iranian media. This plan to push onto the Syrian border has featured prominently in the recent PMF public statements.