AIN AL-JEHESH, Iraq — On the road to Tal Afar, an Iraqi city near Syria that's been key to sectarian catastrophes in both countries over the past decade, a mosaic of rag-tag troops advancing against Islamic State militants have one symbol in common.
The image of Imam Hussein, the revered Shiite figure emblematic of ancient suffering and oppression at the hands of Sunni Muslims, adorns flags and markings on a stream of armored vehicles headed to the front.
It's only a symbol, some say, which steels fighters and rallies the majority around a sense of identity in this fractured country. But to Iraqi minorities, especially those in Tal Afar, forces advancing under Shiite banner and fanfare have raised alarm.
Confident officials and military men say the army will lead the charge on the city, keen to avoid enflaming sectarian frictions. In staging areas for the offensive, however, state-sanctioned Shiite militias and army units aligned with their cause run the show, positioning themselves to control the territory after the fight. The seemingly inevitable end result could open the door to fresh domestic and regional conflict.
The militias, which are also backed by Iran, have at the very least antagonized local Sunnis in the past — a track record that does not bode well for Tal Afar's current population of mostly Sunni Turkmen. And in previous Sunni areas retaken from IS such as Fallujah, they have been accused of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and other abuses against civilians — charges they deny.
"There is some political issue interfering with the war — some people say they don't want the Hashd to enter the city alone, others say they want the army," said Kazem Ali, a fighter with the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, which has sent thousands of volunteers to the city's outskirts. "But we have a plan, and everybody will be surprised that suddenly there is no more Daesh," said the 60-year-old, using the Arabic acronym for IS as he headed to the front with dozens of comrades near the village of Ain al-Jehesh.
Militia commanders choose more tempered words, agreeing with the government and army's position that they will merely support the troops' assault.
But with Iraqi army resources dedicated to Mosul, the main battleground with IS, the militias were given free reign over the city's western approach, where they hope to establish a long-term presence and influence.
The paramilitaries clearly control the road to Tal Afar, with their flags and checkpoints lining it and army units passing only with permission. Guards told The Associated Press that the Iraqi military has no jurisdiction here, while fighters headed to the front said they were ready to take the battle to Syria, home to the capital of IS' self-styled caliphate. The militiamen also maintain a popular animosity toward Israel and America, a staple of Iranian-inspired Shiite mass mobilization across the region.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016 photo, Iraqi soldiers walk next of their humvees with Iraqi and Shiite religious flags, near the ancient site of Nimrud, a town some 19 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Mosul, Iraq.
Photo Credit: Hussein Malla/AP
"This undermines the sovereignty of the central government because the militias are not directly controllable by Baghdad," said analyst Jennifer Cafarella from the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War. The groups are "positioning for long-term presence and influence in northern Iraq," she said, and "will exacerbate grievances" in the process.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says an investigation is underway into past abuses by militiamen, and that scores have been sentenced to death and hundreds to long prison terms. He told the AP this week that the plan now is to bring them all "under the control of the Iraqi security forces."
Recent legislation fully legalizing the militias was quickly rejected by Sunni Arab politicians, who said it was proof of a "dictatorship" of the country's Shiite majority. The split raises concerns that Sunnis will reject Hashd authority, despite its claims to be inclusive for all Iraqis.
Iranian support for the Hashd also raises concerns it may be modeled after that country's Revolutionary Guard and its client in Lebanon, Hezbollah, armed organizations that also dominate politics.
Iraq's Shiite-led government launched its massive campaign to dislodge IS from predominantly Sunni Mosul, the country's second-largest city and last major urban center in Iraq still held by the extremist group, last month. The militias have promised to help the Mosul campaign by encircling its western approach but stay out of the city proper.
The same cannot be said for Tal Afar, a flashpoint for Sunni insurgents since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. A hotbed of al-Qaida activity and an entry point for foreign fighters, it later became a significant recruitment base for IS and its leadership. After a major operation to clear the city of militants in 2006, then-President George W. Bush described it as a success story that "gives us reason to hope for a free Iraq."
Such was not Tal Afar's fate. The situation has even raised concerns in Ankara, where leaders have spoken out since 2003 about the fate of ethnic Turkmen in Iraq. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that the militias could prompt a Turkish response if they "terrorize" the area's Turkmen. He has deployed tanks to Silopi, a nearby Turkish town on Iraq's northern border in a threat of intervention.
The army unit being sent to the coming battle, the 92nd brigade of the 15th Division, is itself far from non-partisan. It is composed almost entirely of former Tal Afar Shiite residents driven from their homes by Sunni extremists over the years and who may seek retribution when they return. It also has just several hundred men deployed, much smaller than the massive militia presence in the area.
Near the frontline at the Tal Afar air base, still regularly shelled by IS mortar fire, Pvt. Abdulkarim Kassem of the 92nd Brigade said his unit was ready to enter the city along with the "holy Hashd," then fight its way up to the Syrian border.
Maj. Gen. Emad Silawi, commander of the 15th Division, said he has fought in the past with the men of the 92nd, and sees them as having a "high morale ... strong and combative." Those troops will enter the city first, he said, although he admits it is possible the Shiite militiamen will follow.
Ayham Kamel, director of Middle East and North Africa at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said that over the long term the government must work to make the Hashd more inclusive for Sunnis.
"The biggest test for Hashd forces after the liberation of territories from the Islamic State is its willingness to scale back its presence in these areas and empower local forces," he said.