By Saif Hameed and Maher Chmaytelli
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Shi’ite militias said on Friday they would launch an offensive against Islamic State west of Mosul imminently, a move which would block any retreat by the Sunni jihadists into Syria but is likely to alarm Iraq’s northern neighbour Turkey.
A spokesman for the Iranian-backed paramilitary groups said the advance towards the Islamic State-held town of Tal Afar, about 55 km (35 miles) west of Mosul, would start within “a few days or hours”.
If successful, the offensive would leave Islamic State fighters – and the 1.5 million civilians still living in Mosul – encircled by an advancing coalition of forces which seeks to crush the hardline Sunni militants in their Iraq stronghold.
Iraqi soldiers and security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, backed by U.S.-led air strikes and support on the ground, already control Mosul’s southern, eastern and northern flanks, and have advanced on those fronts for nearly two weeks.
They have recaptured scores of villages on the flat plains east of Mosul and along the Tigris river to the south, but the battle for Mosul itself, Iraq’s second largest city, could be the most complex military operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion to topple former president Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Adding to the challenges facing the advancing forces, retreating Islamic State fighters have forced women and children from outlying villages to march alongside them as human shields as they withdraw into the city, according to villagers who spoke to Reuters by telephone from Mosul.
Older boys and men of fighting age were taken off to an unknown fate, they said.
The United Nations said on Friday Islamic State had abducted 8,000 families from around Mosul to use as human shields. A spokeswoman also said they had killed 232 people near Mosul on Wednesday who refused to comply with orders.
CUTTING LINES TO SYRIA
Ahmed al-Asadi, a spokesman for the Shi’ite forces known collectively as the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation, said the operation to cut off Mosul’s western approaches was crucial to the battle against Islamic State, also known as Daesh.
“This is the most important and dangerous line because it connects Mosul to Raqqa and is the only supply line for Daesh,” he told Iraqi state television.
Raqqa is Islamic State’s bastion in Syria, and the two cities form the symbolic capitals of a cross-border “caliphate” declared by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque in August 2014.
Iraqi and military sources say there has been a debate about whether or not to close off the western route in and out of Mosul. Leaving it open would offer Islamic State fighters a chance to retreat, potentially sparing civilians inside the city who might otherwise be trapped in a bloody fight to the finish.
Some civilians fleeing Mosul have used the roads to the west to escape to Qamishli, in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria.
Just as the advancing army and peshmerga forces have had to battle to recapture even small villages on the road to Mosul, facing waves of roadside bombings, sniper fire and suicide car bombs, Asadi suggested the advance on Tal Afar may take time.
It will be launched from the Qayyara military base, about 90 km (55 miles) to the southeast.
“Tal Afar is the final destination … it is the pyramid’s peak. But there are villages in the way that need to be liberated before reaching Tal Afar,” Asadi said.
The Tal Afar offensive will target an area which is close to Turkey and home to a sizeable population of ethnic Turkmen, with historic cultural ties to Turkey.
Turkey fears the use of the Shi’ite militias in the Mosul campaign will lead to sectarian strife in the mainly Sunni region and exacerbate an expected exodus of refugees.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week his country, which has troops deployed north of Mosul inside Iraqi territory, will take measures if there is an attack on Tal Afar.
The population of Tal Afar was mix of Sunni and Shi’ite ethnic Turkmen until Shi’ites fled the town after Islamic State’s takeover two years ago.
Earlier announcements by the Shi’ite militias that they will be involved in the offensive on Mosul, Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq, triggered warnings from human rights groups of 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 Popular Mobilisation forces, formed in 2014 to help halt Islamic State’s sweep through Iraq’s northern and western provinces, are backed by Iran although they officially report to the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
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 U.N 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, west of Baghdad, and about 50 others who were summarily executed or tortured to death.
The government and the Popular Mobilisation forces say a limited number of violations had occurred and were investigated, but they deny abuses were widespread and systematic.
(Writing by Dominic Evans; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Giles Elgood)