- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

ASSOCIATED PRESS

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s Shiite militias announced Monday they will participate in the next major battle against the Islamic State group after the Iraqi forces’ victory in Mosul last month.

The Shiite militias, who have had historically close ties to the Shiite regime in Iran, did not fight in the urban part of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, but were key in clearing far-flung villages of ISIS and capturing supply lines in the desert west of Mosul toward Iraq’s border with Syria.

The spokesman for the government-sanctioned umbrella — known as the Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF and mostly made up of Shiite militias — said the participation of the militiamen is “essential” in the upcoming fight for the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul. About 93 miles east of the Syrian border, Tal Afar was once home to both Shiites and Sunni ethnic Turkmen.

“Today we want to speak loud and clear that [the PMF] are actively involved in Tal Afar military operations and will participate in all areas where operations are taking place,” Ahmed al-Asadi told reporters in Baghdad.

In past fights against ISIS in Iraq, including the battles for the cities of Tikrit and Fallujah, the Shiite militias were accused of sectarian killings and other abuses against minority Sunnis. They acknowledge some abuses may have occurred but say those responsible have been disciplined.

Monday’s announcement may increase tensions between Iraq and neighboring Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has repeatedly warned that military operations in and around Mosul should not lead to any demographic changes on the ground, reflecting concerns that once territory is liberated from ISIS, Iraqi Kurdish or Shiite forces may push out Sunni Arabs or ethnic Turkmen.

The militias are also seen as a key component of what Iran’s critics say is a hoped-for “Shiite crescent” stretching across the Middle East through Syria and Lebanon, one that could challenge Sunni Arab-led states such as Saudi Arabia in the ongoing struggle for regional supremacy.

But there are also questions of how closely Iran controls the Iraqi Shiite militias, despite the close religious bonds. Moqtada al-Sadr, the Baghdad Shiite cleric who recently called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary group, which is dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias and has played a major role in the fight against ISIS, has been touring Sunni Arab capitals, visiting the United Arab Emirates this week close on the heels of a trip to Abu Dhabi last week and a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia in July.

Separately, a Pentagon spokesman said the two U.S. soldiers killed Sunday in Iraq were casualties of a U.S. artillery “mishap,” despite claims from Islamic State that it was responsible for their deaths.

The spokesman, Army Col. Rob Manning, said an Army artillery unit was firing on an Islamic State mortar position “when a mishap occurred.” He said there is no indication that ISIS played a role in the deaths. In addition to the two soldiers killed, five others suffered injuries that Col. Manning said were not life-threatening.

The spokesman said he could provide no other details because the incident is under investigation. The names of those killed have not been publicly released.

When the deaths were announced Sunday, the U.S. military said the incident did not involve enemy fire, but provided no other details.

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