Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) has had the city of Tal Afar surrounded for months, awaiting approval to launch a siege against the Islamic State (IS). That approval, however, might never come for the controversial group.
Some officials are worried about what might happen if the largely Shiite PMU leads the liberation of the predominately Sunni Arab and Turkmen city, which has been under IS control since June 2014. There are different theories as to why no action has been taken yet.
Haider al-Tamimi, a PMU leader, told the media April 27 that the forces are on the periphery of Tal Afar, which is about 40 miles west of Mosul. But in a decision that could be more political than military, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that for now they must not enter the city.
In fact, Abadi bluntly declared as far back as November, “The PMU will be excluded from the battle of Tal Afar, as the fighting will be entrusted to fighters from the city and the forces of the army.”
After his forces liberated Al-Hadar district south of Mosul on April 27, PMU Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis said, “The PMU is ready to break into Tal Afar, despite the objection demonstrated by some."
Jawad al-Talibawi, another PMU leader, said April 25 that some members blame the PMU restrictions on internal and external political pressure on Abadi. Iraqi Hezbollah was more explicit, calling on the government not “to yield to the US and regional pressures.”
Parliament member Nahla al-Hababi, a Tal Afar native, told Al-Monitor these pressures “led to a dispute between the government and the PMU factions on the priorities of the liberation process and the extent of the PMU participation in it.”
“Abadi is trying to avoid another military and political battle with Turkey, which threatened Baghdad [that it would] intervene militarily in Tal Afar” if the PMU took part in the operation, Hababi said.
"The government does not want to give Turkey the opportunity to settle scores with its opponents, mainly the Kurdistan Workers Party, inside Iraqi territory. However, Turkey’s influence is likely to diminish if Washington and Baghdad agree on a deadline and the best way to liberate the city,” she added.
Dishwar Faqir, the spokesman for the Yazidi's Sinjar Resistance Units, told the media April 27 that the Turkish attacks against Kurdish-led forces fighting IS on Sinjar Mountain benefited IS in Mosul and Tal Afar. He added, "Turkey is planning to wipe out Shiites from Tal Afar."
In the same vein, writer and journalist Jaafar al-Talafari, who was displaced from the city, told Al-Monitor, “[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s statements against the PMU are an indication of his will to control Tal Afar, as he believes PMU entry to the city would mean it will be controlled by Iranian Shiites.”
Commenting on the extent of disagreement between Abadi and the PMU over the liberation of Tal Afar, PMU leader Karim al-Nuri told Al-Monitor, “The dispute between the two sides is exaggerated, as the PMU is now [surrounding] Tal Afar from all sides. In light of this situation, Abadi was working on easing up lots of international, Gulf and regional pressure, as he kept the different stakeholders in check as to the field situation.”
Nuri added, “Abadi’s response to these pressures — delaying the liberation operations — does not mean there is a dispute with the PMU.”
Part of the delay is due to the preparation time needed for the battle, he said. Liberating al-Hadar beforehand helps "pave the way to entering Tal Afar because Hadar was used by IS to supply its forces" in Mosul and Tal Afar.
At the tactical, technical and military levels, Brig. Gen. Yehia Rasul, the spokesman for the joint operations, told Al-Monitor, “There have been no measures on the ground to try to isolate the PMU or prevent it from liberating Tal Afar, especially since it is part of the military system.”
He added, “Any decision taken by the prime minister is a response to the field situation, as well as regional and international positions. The battle of Tal Afar and Mosul entails regional dimensions as it is part of the fight against global terrorism. Preparing for such a battle should not create any domestic and sectarian problems, as this could benefit the extremist forces."
Saad al-Hadithi, the spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, told Al-Monitor, “The participation of any Iraqi faction in the battle against IS and the liberation of Tal Afar is bound to a sovereign decision, which has nothing to do with any external party." According to Hadithi, "Abadi's’ position regarding PMU participation in any battle is clear. He informed the international parties that the PMU is part of the armed forces and has a duty to liberate the lands, be it in Tal Afar or elsewhere.”
Regardless of the scale of PMU participation in Tal Afar's liberation, the battle is subject to local and regional political calculations, as the city is home to different sects and ethnicities, though Turkey views it as having a Turkmen/Sunni bent. Some observers also believe that an expanded PMU role would help its Iran-backed Shiite components implement Iran's agendas in Syria through the city, given its location.