Iraq PM rejects calls to disband controversial Iran-backed militias
Iraq's prime minister has said that controversial Shia militias will continue to battle the Islamic State group [IS] in spite of calls from a prominent cleric for them to be disbanded.
Haidar al-Abadi made the remarks on Saturday during a speech at an event organised by the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed militias.
"Tal Afar will be liberated by all the forces which liberated Jurf al-Sakhar, Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul," Abadi said in reference to the militias, stressing that the Hashed al-Shaabi will continue to take part in the operation to take back the IS-held town.
Tal Afar is a large town that lies about 80 kilometres west of Mosul on the way to Syria and is still at the hands of the extremists, although completely surrounded by anti-IS forces.
"There have been attempts to sow division between the Hashed al-Shaabi and the Iraqi military but everyone has succeeded in overcoming these attempts," the premier added.
The comments come a day after influential Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr called on the Baghdad government to dismantle the militias.
Speaking to thousands of supporters in the Iraqi capital after a rare visit at the weekend to Sunni-ruled regional kingpin Saudi Arabia, Sadr urged Abadi to dismantle the militias and "integrate into the army the disciplined members" of the paramilitary force.
The Hashed al-Shaabi is nominally under Abadi's command, but some of its components have for years been sending fighters to support Damascus in its six-year-old conflict against various rebel factions.
The paramilitary force took part in the battle to retake Iraq's second city Mosul from IS.
In past fights against IS, including the operation to retake the cities of Tikrit and Fallujah, the Shia militias were accused of sectarian killings and other abuses against minority Sunnis.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis to volunteer to fight against IS days after Mosul fell to the jihadists in 2014.
It sparked a flood of volunteers who were organised under an umbrella group for pro-government paramilitaries.
But the call also left a complicated legacy, as it led to a resurgence of Shia militias that took part in the brutal Sunni-Shia sectarian bloodshed that plagued Iraq in past years.