Ali al-Hussaini, a spokesman of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), has claimed that PMF forces have made significant territorial gains in western Mosul and the operation to liberate the strategic city of Tal Afar will begin soon. “The combatants of this force have cut off all communications lines of Daesh [ISIS] in the strategic city of Tal Afar, particularly from the western parts that border Syria,” Hussaini said in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency, an Iranian outlet affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.). “The siege of Daesh in Tal Afar plays a key role in preparing the ground for the liberation of Tal Afar and its surrounding regions – particularly that Daesh elements are suffering a critical psychological condition and all their help lines are severed.” He stressed that PMF forces will continue their operations to liberate western parts of Mosul.

Comment: After liberating eastern Mosul, the Iraqi security forces began a major offensive last month to capture western Mosul from the Islamic State. But unlike in the east, the Popular Mobilization Forces – which is dominated by Iran-linked Shiite militia groups – have played a prominent role in the anti-ISIS operation in the west. Over the past months, the PMF forces have captured dozens of villages in western Mosul, took the control of an army airbase outside Tal Afar, and have cut off the communications and supply lines between Tal Afar and Syria.

PMF’s active role in western Mosul has been a matter of grave concern for regional Sunni states and Iraqi lawmakers, who have expressed the concern that Iran-backed sectarian groups may engage in revenge killings against the region’s largely Sunni population once the Islamic State is defeated. Last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a press conference warned that the participation of PMF units in western Mosul could further inflame sectarianism in Iraq.

Although the PMF is now an integral part of the Iraqi security forces, the close relationship between some PMF units and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) also poses security risks to the U.S. military advisers that are helping the Iraqi forces battling the Islamic State. Recently, Iran-linked Iraqi militia groups have launched a vicious propaganda campaign against the United States and the I.R.G.C.-affiliated media outlets have dutifully circulated their conspiracy theories. For example, Jawad al-Talabwi, the commander of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an I.R.G.C.-linked group within the PMF, last month accused the U.S. military of providing assistance to the Islamic State terrorists in the city of Tal Afar. Akram al-Kaabi, the chief commander of Harakat al-Nujaba, another powerful Iran-supported PMF unit, said on March 11 that his forces will not allow American forces to take credit for anti-ISIS victories in Iraq.

The PMF consists of militia forces largely from Shiite but also other Iraqi ethnic and religious groups. While some PMF units are Iraqi nationalists and follow Iraq’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, many prominent groups within PMF have close ties with Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force. What makes Sunnis particularly worried is that, despite PMF’s diversity, it is the Iran-backed militia units within the PMF – such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization – that are playing the most prominent role in western Mosul.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.