An Iraqi Shia fighter from the Hashd al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) paramilitary forces inspects an underground tunnel in the town of Tal Abtah, south of Tal Afar, on December 10, 2016.
An Iraqi Shia fighter from the Hashd al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) paramilitary forces inspects an underground tunnel in the town of Tal Abtah, south of Tal Afar, on December 10, 2016.

The Iraqi army recaptured Mosul last week from Daesh three years after its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared his so-called caliphate. But the army's fight against Daesh in Iraq is not completely over. Tal Afar, a city in northwest Iraq, will be the next battleground in the fight over Daesh enclaves in Iraq amid concerns that Shia militias who were accused of torture and killings in Sunni-majority cities, might enter the city along with the Iraqi army.

Here's what you need to know about Tal Afar:

A strategic Daesh outpost

Tal Afar is in the north of Iraq's Nineveh province, a strategic gateway between Iraq's newly recaptured city of Mosul, and Raqqa — Daesh's de facto capital in Syria. The town is predominantly-Turkmen and lies just 60 kilometres from the border with Turkey. Turkey is monitoring the situation carefully.

Daesh captured Tal Afar, the city with the largest population of Turkmen in the country, in August 2014 — forcing thousands of local residents to flee their homes. It is now one of the last remaining major Daesh strongholds in Iraq. The Iraqi army's victory in Tal Afar would mean that Daesh would lose one of its most logistically important bases.

Iraq's ambassador in Ankara said in a press briefing on Thursday that the Iraqi army was ready to begin its offensive on Tal Afar.

"Our next target is Tal Afar. We're going to start our operations in Tal Afar, and we think Daesh will be defeated soon," Dr Hisham al Alawi told reporters.

A complicated fight

An international coalition led by the United States is supporting Iraqi troops on the ground and with air support. The peshmerga forces of the Autonomous Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq (KRG), also became instrumental on the ground in fighting Daesh in Iraq. In Mosul, peshmerga forces managed to recapture most of the north from Daesh by the end of 2016 with the help of the US-led coalition.

It wasn't just the US-linked groups that have been fighting in Iraq. Hashd al Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), is a Shia paramilitary umbrella group largely funded and commanded by Iran. They have previously played key roles in the offensives on Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baji and Mosul.

Tal Afar's demographic structure, a mix of Sunni and Shia Turkmen and Arabs makes the fight more complex than it was in Mosul. Shortly after the Mosul operation begun in October, and Hashd al Shaabi surrounded the town from the west, Turkey raised its objections about the militia group's existence in the next offensive in Tel Afar. In response to Turkey's objections, Iraqi PM Haidar al Abadi said in November that the militia group will not enter the city.

Hashd al Shaabi has been close to Tal Afar, for more than a half-a-year now. It's uncertain whether it will enter Tal Afar and defy Abadi.

A humanitarian crisis feared to be underway

Daesh's capture of the Turkmen town, forced thousands of local residents, mostly the Shia Turkmen population, to flee their homes since 2014. Iraqi parliament recently approved a bill to recognise Daesh persecution of Turkmen as genocide.

Moreover, the US-led coalition's air strikes in support of the Iraqi army's fight against Daesh in the city already displaced nearly half of the population that survived the offensive. Some of them fled to other Iraqi provinces and some sought refuge abroad.

But the recent advance of Hashd al Shaabi to villages near Tal Afar raises concerns that its involvement in the fight could worsen the humanitarian conditions and inflame sectarian tension in the region.

Hashd al Shaabi militias have previously been condemned by rights groups for abuses against civilians in Sunni-majority areas.

"I think the gravest abuse that the Hashd al Shaabi committed historically was in the context of the battle to retake Fallujah. They rounded up 1,200 men and separated them into two groups of 600, took 600 to a military base, held them and tortured them. And thankfully local police actually discovered that the men were there and released them, so they were able to get out. But the other 600 men, to this day, are still missing. We have no idea if they have all been executed or if they have been held prisoner somewhere," Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher told TRT World in May.

Source: TRT World