Fresh off the battlefield in Mosul, Iraqi forces are beginning another offensive against the Islamic State, this time in Tal Afar. The town is strategically located east of the Syrian border and sits along a major road that was a key Islamic State supply route. Iraqi forces announced that more than 40,000 fighters will take part in the operation with the support of 20,000 mostly Shiite fighters from what are known as popular mobilization units (PMU).
Iraq's PMUs largely stayed out of the operation to retake Mosul, a mostly Sunni city, but have vowed to play a significant role in the offensive in Tal Afar, which is home to both Sunnis and Shiite Turkmen, the latter of which maintain close ties to Turkey. The Kurds are also a factor: They want to ensure their security, considering Tal Afar borders the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Those taking part in the fighting include: the Iraqi Army 9th Armored Division Tank Battalions, 16th Iraqi Army infantry division, Anti-Terrorist Forces and Federal Police, as well as brigades from the PMU, most notably the Badr Organization, the Imam Ali Brigades and the Abbas Combat Brigade. A small number of tribal fighters will participate in the coming battle. French artillery will support some of the army and anti-terrorism units.
The PMUs will accompany the Federal Police and rapid response units, as they did in the Fallujah and Tikrit operations. The Abbas squad will fight alongside the Iraqi army with support from the Iraqi air force. The international coalition has withheld air support for the Federal Police, who are working with Iran-backed PMUs, because of fears that an errant strike could cause conflict with Iran.
Iraqi forces are pushing from four different axes and two sub-axes. From the southwest, Iraqi Anti-Terrorist Forces will push with the support of coalition air forces. From the southeast, Iraqi Army 9th Armored Division will push with the support of PMUs. Federal Police will take the western flank, and the 16th infantry division will take the north.
A spokesman for the PMUs stated that Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah advisers would provide support to retake Tal Afar. He added that Iranian advisers had been a part of all previous PMU operations. But their participation in this operation could heighten sectarian and regional conflict. Airstrikes and a troop buildup have already forced tens of thousands of people to flee Tal Afar, threatening to compound the humanitarian crisis created by the Mosul operation.