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US will not back militias in fight for Iraq's Mosul

Military officials say they will not support the Shia-dominated PMFs, whose potential participation has raised fears of sectarian strife
A member of the Iraqi special forces kisses a flag bearing Shia emblems during the operation to retake Mosul from IS (Reuters)

The US-led coalition will not support Shiite militia who might seek to participate in the campaign to retake Mosul from Islamic State, a top US general told Pentagon reporters on Wednesday, stressing that it is up to Baghdad to decide their role.

Late on Tuesday, the Shiite-dominated paramilitary force said it would support the Iraqi army's offensive west of Mosul, Islamic State's last major stronghold in Iraq, raising fears of sectarian strife in the mainly Sunni region.

The announcement came despite warnings from human rights groups that involvement of the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a coalition of mostly Iranian-trained militias, could ignite sectarian violence.

"As far as the Shiite PMF, the coalition only supports those elements that are under the direct command and control of the Iraqi security forces - and the Shiite PMF are not," said Major General Gary Volesky, the commander of US-led coalition ground forces in the fight against Islamic State militants.

"So we don't support them."

The announcement could be significant for the battle, with the US saying it will give material support to Iraqi forces on the ground but apparently shying away from backing one component of the advancing forces.

The PMF said it would back Iraqi government forces advancing toward Tal Afar, about 55 km west of Mosul.

Volesky declined to comment on Tal Afar "because today [we're] focused on Mosul."

"As far as what the Shiite PMF's role is, again, that is up to the government of Iraq and we (advise) them on our recommendations," Volesky said. "But at the end of the day, that is the government of Iraq's decision."

The Iraqi government is still militarily reliant on the PMUs to some extent.

However, it has chosen not to allow the militias to enter the centre of Mosul city and limited their involvement to the outskirts, a situation that some fighters have found frustrating.

The PMUs are overwhelmingly Shiite, but there are also a number of units composed of Sunni and Christian fighters, while some are mixed-sect.

Numerous human rights organisations have levelled accusations of abuse at the PMUs, alleging that the paramilitary fighters hold a sectarian agenda.

However, members of the militia speaking to MEE on Wednesday insisted that they do not plan to seek "revenge" in Mosul, but said extremists had attempted to make Mosul "completely Sunni".