Gun trucks and humvees streamed north on a highway heading to Mosul on Sunday flying the banners of Shi’ite militias along with Iraqi flags while blaring religious songs, Reuters reports.
The convoys were the first clear sign of a new player on the battlefield in the U.S.-backed offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State: Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of Shi'ite militias.
Although it reports officially to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the coalition is mostly made up of groups trained by Iran and loyal to its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
They have close ties with General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Quds Brigade, the extra-territorial arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. He was seen touring the frontlines around Mosul last week.
Among the banners that could be seen flying from artillery cannons, communication towers and buildings recently retaken from Islamic State were those of Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, two of the main Iranian-backed groups, alongside the Badr Organization, considered the largest.
Dozens of holes dug on the side of the highway for several kilometers indicated how heavily mined the highway had been only a couple of days before and the efforts the force had gone through to clear the road.
One of the first villages retaken by the PMF since announcing combat operations on Saturday was Ain Nasir, some 30 kilometers south of Mosul.
One fighter who participated in the battle to retake the village on Saturday night said that Islamic State had put up little resistance and that fighters had taken several villagers hostage during their retreat, using them as human shields.
"We are fighting to push Daesh out of Iraq," said Adel Khiali, 26, a PMF fighter affiliated with the Badr Organization who was formerly an Iraqi army soldier. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
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