- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2016

As Iraqi and Kurdish forces tighten the noose around the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, American and coalition commanders are keeping a wary eye on the city’s western flanks, where thousands of Shia majority paramilitary fighters have launched an offensive toward the city.

Consisting mostly of Iranian-backed Shia militias intermingled with other sectarian paramilitaries, these Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs, are fighting their toward Tal Afar, a major Islamic State hub west of Mosul.

The units, which are not officially part of the Iraqi armed forces but do fall under the command of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, have played an integral role in recapturing major Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah from Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

But those victories, particularly in Fallujah, have been tainted by reports of egregious human rights abuses and sectarian violence against Sunni civilians by the Shia PMUs.

U.S. commanders in Iraq are deferring to Baghdad’s decision to incorporate the militias into the Mosul fight, but are concerned their presence could spark sectarian backlash among Sunnis in and around Tal Afar and northern Iraq writ large.

“Some [militias] are working very closely with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces … [but] we absolutely understand that these groups that have been involved in acts of terror and human rights abuses,” said Air Force Col. John Dorrian, the top U.S. spokesman in Iraq.

Thus far, all the militias under the PMU banner have operated “within the parameters that they have been given,” Col. Dorrian told reporters Thursday during a briefing from Baghdad.

But the shadow of possible sectarian violence grows longer as the units gain ground against the Islamic State on the road to Tal Afar and eventually Mosul.

“The government of Iraq understands that, they understand that the world is watching what happens as the popular mobilization forces move into position,” Col. Dorrian said, reiterating those paramilitary units will receive no support from American forces in country.

“Obviously we’re not going to help them [even though] a lot of these other groups are working hand in hand with the government of Iraq to execute the government of Iraq’s plan,” he said.

U.S. and coalition forces backing Iraqi and coalition forces have carried out over 3,000 rocket, artillery and airstrikes against Islamic State targets since the beginning of the offensive three weeks ago.

Roughly 5,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in Iraq to provide intelligence, logistics and air support for Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Of those troops, nearly 100 U.S. special operations forces are embedded with Iraqi government and peshmerga units along the southern and eastern borders of Mosul.

Pentagon officials have not ruled out the possibility of U.S. advisers finding themselves inside Mosul alongside their Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts as the assault progresses deeper into the city.

“As far as U.S. forces or coalition forces going into Mosul, we’re executing the Iraqi plan and the Iraqi plan is that the only ones going in there right now are Iraqi forces,” Col. Dorrian said.

When asked if that plan could change, as the fight progresses further into the city, he replied, “I do know that right now, where we at, there is no plan for coalition forces to go in there.”

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