Thursday 18 January 2018

'Fear fills this city like a cloud' - Shia militias target cradle of Isil

Iraqi special forces soldiers walk in Mosul, Iraq. Photo: Reuters
Iraqi special forces soldiers walk in Mosul, Iraq. Photo: Reuters
An Iraqi special forces soldier smokes while seated in his position inside a mosque in Mosul, Iraq. Photo: Reuters
The Iraqi army fires a 155mm shell towards Islamic State militant positions in Mosul, from the village of Ali Rash, east of Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
The Iraqi army fires a 155mm shell towards Islamic State militant positions in Mosul, from the village of Ali Rash, east of Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
A baby injured during fighting, between the Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants, is treated at a field hospital in eastern Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
An Iraqi special forces fighter listens to the radio as he watches Islamic State positions near the front line, in eastern Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
An Iraqi special forces fighter looks at Islamic State positions through a periscope near the front line in eastern Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
Internally displaced people flee fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants on a road in eastern Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
An Iraqi special forces fighter moves between buildings near the front line during fighting with Islamic State militants, in eastern Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
An Iraqi special forces sniper aims his weapon at Islamic State positions near the front line, in eastern Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
An Iraqi special forces soldier looks at a part of Mosul controlled by Islamic State fighters in Iraq. Photo: Reuters
A man pushes a cart in Mosul, Iraq. Photo: Reuters
Iman Salman Mahmoud, 20, who fled the violence from Islamic State militants, kisses her baby Aisha Qais Mahmoud, who was born under Islamic State rule and has no identity documents recognised by Iraqi authorities, in Jolkhan, East of Mosul. Photo: Reuters
Iraqi special forces soldiers point guns at part of Mosul controlled by Islamic State fighters in Iraq. Photo: Reuters

Patrick Cockburn in Irbil

Tal Afar is a small city notorious for sectarian hatred and slaughter, which may soon be engulfed by a final battle between Isil and its bitterest enemies.

Shia paramilitaries seeking revenge for past massacres of their co-religionists may soon assault the place which has provided many of the most feared Isil commanders, judges and religious officials.

"Isil is full of killers, but the worst killers of all come from Tal Afar," said a senior Iraqi official who did not want his name published.

Abbas, a 47-year-old Shia Turkman from Tal Afar living in exile in the Kurdish city of Zakho, agrees, saying that several of the senior military commanders of the self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi come from there.

He added that officers from the Shia paramilitaries have told that they will soon attack the city. The Turkmen are one of Iraq's smaller minorities but important because of their links to Isil and to Turkey.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 Shia Hashd al-Shaabi are now massing to the south and west of Mosul with Tal Afar in their sights. A spokesman for them said yesterday that they were within 20km of Tal Afar airport.

The paramilitaries, often referred to as militia, include an estimated 3,000 Shia Turkmen from Tal Afar who were forced to flee in 2014 when Isil seized the city, though it had long been infamous for its death squads operating on behalf of both the Sunni majority and Shia minority.

Sectarian killings began in 2003 when Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the US-led invasion and the city, strategically placed between Mosul and the Syrian border, became a stronghold, first for al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) and later for Isil.

"Fear fills the city like a great cloud," says Abbas. "Many senior members of Isil have left for Syria, but locals who worked with al-Qa'ida and Isil are still there and are frightened. I am sure that after the battle of Tal Afar there will be a great massacre."

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But, though the Sunni Turkmen believe they may be slaughtered they are determined not to surrender. Abbas says that he believes that the Iraqi Army can take the city though only after heavy fighting because "the locals of Tal Afar which are with Isil will never leave the city. They have a strong belief that Tal Afar is Sunni not Shia and they prefer Isil to the Iraqi government." But, bad though occupation by the Iraqi Army would be in their eyes, its capture by the Hashd would be even worse said Abbas.

But this is what is most likely to happen, according to Khasro Goran, a former deputy governor of Mosul who now leads the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) MPs in the Iraqi parliament. After a visit to the area, he said in an interview that though the Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Badi had promised "that only the Iraqi Army would enter Tal Afar, I believe the Hashd will do so also." The difference between the paramilitaries and government security forces is not entirely clear cut, because the former have been known to change into police and other uniforms in the past to hide their presence in battle zones.

What happens next in Tal Afar has international implications because Turkey has threatened military intervention in defence of the Sunni Turkmen if the Shia paramilitaries enter the city. A Turkish mechanised brigade have been moved to the Turkish Iraqi border to give substance to the threat. The KDP, the dominant Kurdish party in this part of northern Iraq, is likewise worried by the presence of powerful Shia militia forces in the region. (© Independent News Service)

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