By Idris Okuducu
Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militiamen are reportedly planning to take the Iraq’s Tal Afar district west of Mosul, which is populated mostly by Turkmen.
Before being captured by the Daesh terrorist group, Tal Afar had been Mosul's largest district, hosting over 300,000 Shia Turkmen residents.
Since Daesh took the district, however, Tal Afar’s population has plummeted from over half a million to less than 50,000, mostly consisting of Turkmen.
On Tuesday, Jawad al-Talebawi, a spokesman for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (a militant faction within the Hashd al-Shaabi), told Anadolu Agency that the Hashd al-Shaabi leadership had specifically tasked the Asaib Ahl al-Haq with wresting Tal Afar from Daesh.
The assertion has prompted fears among Sunni Turkmen, who fear the Shia militiamen may commit rights violations against the region’s Sunni inhabitants.
Established in 2014, the Hashd al-Shaabi is an umbrella group of pro-government Shia militias drawn up specifically to fight Daesh.
After Daesh captured Tal Afar, it attacked Sinjar, home to a large Ezidi population. Some groups in Sinjar alleged that Ezidi women and children were abducted and taken to Tal Afar in a move that some have blamed on Turkmen.
Ezidis are an ethnically Kurdish religious group indigenous to the northern Mesopotamia region.
Now in Sinjar for more than two years, the terrorist PKK organization is reportedly encouraging Ezidis to "take revenge" on Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar on the pretext of fighting Daesh.
One Ezidi lawmaker in Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government, Seyh Shemo, told Anadolu Agency that Ezidis were not looking for revenge against Turkmens, warning against the PKK's provocations.
"The PKK wants the Ezidis to take part in the Sunni-Shia conflict in hopes of justifying its presence in the region," said Shemo.
The Hashd al-Shaabi is also reportedly using its Shia Turkmen members to "take revenge" on Turkmen living in Tal Afar.
Aydin Maruf, a member of the Kurdish parliament for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, recently warned that the Hashd al-Shaabi -- and the PKK -- wanted to change Tal Afar’s demographic structure.
Maruf alleged that the Hashd al-Shaabi supported the Turkmen in Tal Afar, while Daesh was supporting the district’s Sunnis.
"Both [terrorist] organizations have made Turkmen a part of the Sunni-Shia conflict," Maruf said. "They want to divide the Turkmen while bolstering their own presence."
Voicing concern about sectarian tension between Shia and Sunni Turkmen, Maruf said both the Hashd al-Shaabi and the PKK were trying to "ignite the conflict".
Former Mosul Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, for his part, shared the Turkmen's concerns about Tal Afar.
"Ezidis hold Sunnis in Tal Afar responsible for the mass abduction of their women. The PKK may encourage these Ezidis to take revenge on the Turkmen, while the Hashd al-Shaabi may join the fray with its Shia Turkmen," he said.
Al-Nujaifi warned that the operation in Tal Afar would be more difficult than the current operation to capture Mosul.
"The involvement of the Hashd al-Shaabi and the PKK in operations to retake Tal Afar may aggravate the sectarian conflict," he said.
The Hashd al-Shaabi accuses local Sunnis of "collaborating" with Daesh, which captured vast swathes of territory in northern and western Iraq in mid-2014.
The Shia militia has recently amassed thousands of members west of Mosul to participate in a major offensive to capture Iraq’s second largest city from Daesh.
Most Sunni forces participating in the Mosul campaign do not want the militia to play any role in the operation, fearing such a move could engender sectarian tension -- and possibly conflict -- in the ethnically diverse city.