Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary groups said they started an offensive on Saturday against Islamic State positions west of Mosul, assisting in a campaign to take back the city.
The operation will target Tal Afar, an Islamic State-held area close to Turkey where a sizeable ethnic Turkmen population lives, which could cause concern in Ankara.
Earlier announcements by the militias, collectively known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), on advancing toward Mosul have drawn warnings from human rights groups concerned about sectarian violence in the mainly Sunni province. Shi’ites make up a majority in Iraq but Sunnis are predominant in the north and the west.
The PMF said it had started moving early on Saturday toward Tal Afar from positions south of Mosul, Islamic State’s last major city stronghold in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the United Nations reported that jihadists had killed scores of people and taken tens of thousands to use as human shields in the Mosul area as Iraqi forces temporarily halted their advance on the city.
Thousands of people have fled from areas surrounding Mosul, prompting a warning of “massive displacement” when fighting starts inside Mosul.
“The wounded city of Tal Afar (is among) the cities to be liberated,” said a statement on the PMF’s website.
The PMF officially reports to the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who on October 17 announced the start of an offensive targeting Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, with the backing of a US-led coalition.
The PMF was formed in 2014 to help push back Islamic State’s sweeping advance through northern and western provinces.
Amnesty International says that in previous campaigns, the Shi’ite militias have committed “serious human rights violations, including war crimes” against civilians fleeing Islamic State-held territory.
The UN in July said it had a list of more than 640 Sunni Muslim men and boys reportedly abducted by a Shi’ite militia in Falluja, a former militant stronghold west of Baghdad, and a list of about 50 others who were summarily executed or tortured to death.
The government and the PMF say a limited number of violations have occurred and that they were investigated but they deny that abuses were widespread and systematic.
As Iraqi forces have closed in on Mosul from the north, east and south, growing numbers of civilians have fled IS-held areas and the impending fighting in territory the jihadists control.
The International Organization for Migration said that as of Friday, 16,566 people had been displaced since the operation began on October 17, the vast majority in the Mosul region.
“We’ve seen… quite a dramatic increase in the numbers in the last few days, and they are now going into the newly set up camps,” Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council told AFP.
“This is already worrying because they haven’t yet entered the city… when that happens, it’s going to be quite massive displacement,” he said.
The potential for a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of civilians are forced into camps with winter looming is just one of a raft of issues that have complicated military planning for the recapture of Mosul.
Thousands of Kurdish peshmerga fighters are taking part in the operation alongside Iraqi government troops, and Kurdish leaders have made clear that they will expect payback once it has been successfully completed.
The Kurds, who have expanded the territory under their control far beyond the boundaries of their longstanding autonomous region in the north, say their hopes of a new Iraq have been dashed and that they will now explore a separate future.
“As soon as Mosul is liberated, we will meet with our partners in Baghdad and talk about our independence,” the region’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani told Germany’s Bild newspaper.
But for now, the battle for Mosul is far from over, and most of the advancing forces are still some distance from the city limits.
The head of US military operations in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, said the jihadists were suffering heavy losses.
“Just in the operations over the last week and a half associated with Mosul, we estimate they’ve probably killed about 800 to 900 Islamic State fighters,” Votel said.
Washington estimates there are between 3,500 and 5,000 IS fighters in Mosul and as many as 2,000 more in the wider area.