By Patrick Cockburn
Tal Afar is a small city notorious for sectarian hatred and slaughter, which may soon be engulfed by a final battle between Isis and its bitterest enemies. Shia paramilitaries seeking revenge for past massacres of their co-religionists may soon assault the place which has provided many of the most feared Isis commanders, judges and religious officials. “Isis is full of killers, but the worst killers of all come Tal Afar,” says a senior Iraqi official who did not want his name published. Abbas, a 47-year-old Shia Turkman from Tal Afar living in exile in the Kurdish city of Zakho, agrees, saying that several of the senior military commanders of the self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi come from there.
He adds that officers from the Shia paramilitaries have been told that they will soon attack the city. The Turkmen are on of Iraq’s smaller minorities but important because of their links to Isis and to Turkey. Between 10,000 and 15,000 Shia Hashd al-Shaabi are now massing to the south and west of Mosul with Tal Afar in their sights. A spokesman for them said on Tuesday that they were within twelve miles of Tal Afar airport. The paramilitaries often referred to as militia, include an estimated 3,000 Shia Turkmen from Tal Afar who were forced to flee in 2014 when Isis seized the city, though it had long been infamous for its death squads operating on behalf of both the Sunni majority and Shia minority.
Sectarian killings began in 2003 when Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the US-led invasion and the city, strategically placed between Mosul and the Syrian border, became a stronghold, first for Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later for Isis. “Fear fills the city like a great cloud,” says Abbas. “Many senior members of Isis have left for Syria, but locals who worked with al-Qaeda and Isis are still there and are frightened. I am sure that after the battle of Tal Afar there will be a great massacre.” But, though the Sunni Turkmen believe they may be slaughtered they are determined not to surrender.
Abbas says that he believes that the Iraqi Army can take the city though only after heavy fighting because “the locals of Tal Afar which are with Isis will never leave the the city. They have a strong belief that Tal Afar is Sunni not Shia and they prefer Isis to the Iraqi government.” But, bad though occupation by the Iraqi Army would be in their eyes, its capture by the Hashd would be even worse says Abbas. But this is what is most likely to happen according to Khasro Goran, a former deputy governor of Mosul who now leads the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) MPs in the Iraqi parliament. After a visit to the area, he said in an interview that though the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Badi had promised “that only the Iraqi Army would enter Tal Afar, I believe the Hashd will do so also.” The difference between the paramilitaries and government security forces is not entirely clear cut, because the former have been known to change into federal police and other uniforms in the past to hide their presence in the battle zone.
What happens next in Tal Afar has international implications because Turkey has threatened military intervention in defence of the Sunni Turkmen if the Shia paramilitaries enter the city. A Turkish mechanised brigade has been moved to the Turkish Iraqi border to give substance to the threat. The KDP, the dominant Kurdish party in this part of northern Iraq, is likewise worried by the presence of powerful Shia militia forces in the region. In a recent paper on “The Looming Problem of Tal Afar” for the Wilson Centre in Washington DC, Professor Gareth Stansfield of Exeter University gives a warning that the struggle for Tal Afar could be the flashpoint leading to a wider conflict. He writes that “because of Tal Afar’s early and close association with Sunni jihadism in Iraq, and perhaps also because of the astonishingly brutal nature of the sectarian conflict that engulfed Tal Afar from 2005-2007, the town has taken on the reputation of being Isis’s very own heart of darkness among Shia and Kurds alike.” He adds that the political implications of what happens in Tal Afar has the potential to destabilise the US-orchestrated operation to take Mosul.
Abbas says that as of last weekend the Hashd were within four miles of Tal Afar. He believes that for Isis the city has always been of great importance because of its position close to the border with Syria and Turkey. He says that under Saddam Hussein there was no sectarian friction between Sunni and Shia Turkmen, but this changed after the invasion of 2003. Aside from their sympathy for Isis, Abbas says that these days “the Sunni Turkmen lean towards Turkey and the Shia Turkmen lean towards the Baghdad government and Iran.”
For the moment living conditions in Tal Afar are not too bad as Isis is giving local fighters their basic needs. Food still comes through from Syria, but over the last week supplies have been more limited and Abbas says that, though most things are still available, people “don’t have the money to buy anything.” The capture of Mosul and Tal Afar by the Iraqi government and the Hashd would severely weaken Isis and re-establish the authority of the Baghdad government in northern Iraq. The Sunni population of Iraq, a fifth of the population, would lose their last urban strongholds. Turkey may be tempted to intervene, but this will be opposed by the US and Baghdad. Isis has evidently decided to draw out the fighting for Mosul and Tal Afar, and, if it is able to do so, not much of either city will survive the battle.