Baghdad mulls recalling al-Hashd al-Shaabi to eastern Mosul front

Al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters.

Baghdad ( Iraqi military officials are considering to seek backup from Shia-led al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias to embolden forces in the eastern region of Mosul against Islamic State militants, a newspaper has said.

Worked out by continuous battles and fierce resistance from IS in eastern Mosul, the forces may receive backup from certain militias operating under al-Hashd al-Shaabi’s flag, London-based The New Arab newspaper reported, quoting officials close to Mosul operations command.

Iraqi government forces, backed by al-Hashd al-Shaabi and US-led air forces, launched a wide-scale military campaign mid October to retake Mosul: IS’s last major stronghold in Iraq. Government forces are fighting on the eastern shore of the Tigris River, recapturing almost 50 percent of that region since then, according to security officials. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Wednesday forces recaptured 5600 sq km out of a total space of 7600 sq km of the province of Nineveh. Al-Hashd al-Shaabi has been, meanwhile, fighting the group in the western region, claiming to have isolated IS’s hideouts there from both Syria and Iraq.

But, as admitted by military media, progress in battles at the east slowed down over the past week. That is reportedly due to bad weather conditions and the density of the targeted districts.

A senior officer at the Ministry of Defense told The New Arab that the government has begun discussions over recalling nearly 5000 fighters from al-Hashd who are currently deployed near the strategic IS stronghold of Tal Afar in the west. “Most of al-Hashd groups agree to that, but some others refuse to join as part of military or police forces, and have declined to get government forces uniforms as was the case in previous occasions,” the officer said.

The officer admitted that al-Hashd militias are more accustomed to guerrilla-style battles, adding that though government forces enjoy an air cover from US-led forces, that support does not resolve the battle on the ground.

Reda Allawi, a senior commander at al-Hashd al-Shaabi, said their participation in the Mosul battle has become “very likely”. He told the newspaper that the battle there “needs intervention by paramilitary forces because the army is obviously dragging inside districts”.

He, however, conditioned that such an intervention must be officially declared. “The government should not appease Washington by again putting the army or federal police label on us,” as he put it, referring to concerns voiced by the US and other world bodies of al-Hashd’s involvement into the liberation battles.

On Monday, Iraqi President Fuad Masum approved a law passed by parliament in November that turned al-Hashd al-Shaabi from a paramilitary to national force.The passing of the long-debated bill came amid intense objections from Sunni groups within the parliament who feared the law would grant the militia unchecked powers, and therefore stoke sectarian tensions.

Al-Hashd al-Shaabi was formed by a decree from Iraq’s top Shia clergy to combat the Islamic State militants who took over many regions of Iraq in 2014. The militia is currently engaged in fighting against ISIS on the side of the Iraqi government forces, and its involvement in the liberation of areas inhabited by Sunnis has aroused international and local fears of sectarian twists.

The law counts al-Hashd al-Shaabi as part of the national armed forces and subject to its supreme commander. Its text says personnel affiliated with the force should be disconnected with any other political, social or partisan affiliations. It gives an exclusive mandate to the supreme commander of the armed forces to decide on the distribution and deployment of the force among provinces.

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