BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi Shi‘ite paramilitary group said it will join government forces preparing to fight Islamic State for Mosul despite objections of politicians who fear this could instigate sectarian bloodshed in the mostly Sunni Muslim city.
A much-touted government offensive to retake Iraq’s largest northern city two years after its seizure by the Sunni Islamist insurgents has made a faltering start, casting doubt on the army’s ability to do so without more ground support.
The campaign will require the participation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of mostly Shi‘ite Muslim militias, said a spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of its most powerful factions.
“We think the battle to liberate Mosul will be huge, complex; it will be about guerrilla warfare in built-up areas, which only PMF fighters are good at ..., as forces may be fighting house to house, room to room,” the spokesman, Jawad al-Talabawi, said in an interview on Wednesday in Baghdad.
In an opinion column published in the New York Times on March 27, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri made a plea to keep the PMF out of Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province.
Jabouri, the most senior Sunni official in the Shi‘ite led-country, said the PMF had destroyed Sunni houses and mosques, carried out reprisal killings in villages recaptured from Islamic State and barred people from returning to their homes.
To avoid atrocities, Jabouri said, the Mosul campaign should replicate the recent recapture from Islamic State of Ramadi, capital of mainly Sunni Anbar province, by Iraqi army troops backed by Sunni tribal fighters and U.S.-led air strikes.
Until Ramadi’s recapture in December, it was the PMF, assisted by Iranian military advisers, that spearheaded operations to recover territory from Islamic State.
The PMF says government forces will need the help of more than Sunni tribesmen to recover Mosul, which is four times the size of Ramadi.
Asaib spokesman Talabawi dismissed the concerns of Sunni politicians about Mosul, saying the PMF would cause less damage to the city than if government forces stormed it under the cover of air bombardment as was done in Ramadi.
He suggested the PMF rather than the army take the lead in pushing into Mosul, saying the army could advance effectively only when the ground had been cleared by heavy bombardment.
Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, was the first major success for Iraq’s U.S.-backed army since its collapse in the face of Islamic State’s lightning surge across the country’s north and west in mid-2014.
Ramadi suffered heavy damage as Islamic State militants typically use residential dwellings for cover, dig tunnels and lay mines and explosives to slow an enemy’s advance. Most of the city’s population fled before the final onslaught started.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has declared 2016 the year of “final victory” over Islamic State, which in 2014 proclaimed a caliphate from Mosul, by far the largest city under IS control in both Syria and Iraq with a pre-war population of about two million.
But an offensive meant to bring the army closer to Mosul has been put on hold two weeks after its launch until more forces arrive to hold ground, the commander in charge said on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mark Heinrich