AL-QAYYARAH, IRAQ (AFP) - Iraqi paramilitary forces launched an operation on Saturday (Oct 29) to retake Tal Afar from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), opening a new front in the nearly two-week-old offensive to recapture militant-held Mosul.
Forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi, a paramilitary umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, have largely been on the sidelines since the launch of the Mosul operation.
And the western approach to Mosul, a route on which Tal Afar is located, is the only one where ground forces, which have advanced on the city from the north, east and south, are not yet deployed.
"The operation aims to cut supplies between Mosul and Raqa and tighten the siege of (ISIS) in Mosul and liberate Tal Afar," Hashed spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi told AFP, referring to IS's main strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Mr Assadi said the operation was launched from the Sin al-Dhaban area south of Mosul and aimed to retake the towns of Hatra and Tal Abta as well as Tal Afar.
The drive towards Tal Afar could bring the fighting perilously close to the ancient city of Hatra, a Unesco world heritage site that has already been vandalised by ISIS.
Though it was not mentioned by name, the operation may also pass near the ruins of Nimrud, another archaeological site that has previously been attacked by ISIS.
The involvement of Shi'ite militias in the Mosul operation has been a source of contention, although some of the Hashed's top commanders insist they do not plan to enter the largely Sunni city.
Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arab politicians have opposed their involvement, as has Turkey, which has a military presence east of Mosul despite repeated demands by Baghdad for the forces to be withdrawn.
Relations between the Hashed and the US-led coalition fighting ISIS are also tense, but the paramilitaries enjoy widespread support among members of Iraq's Shi'ite majority.
Tal Afar was a Shiite-majority town of mostly ethnic Turkmens before the Sunni extremists of ISIS overran it in 2014, and its recapture is a main goal of Shiite militia forces.
As the Hashed push on Tal Afar got under way, Iraq's federal police were assaulting Al-Shura, an area south of Mosul with a long history as a militant bastion that has been the target of fighting for more than a week.
"Federal units are assaulting the Al-Shura (area) from four axes and the enemy is collapsing and leaving his defensive positions," federal police commander Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat said in a statement.
The offensive operations came despite an assertion from the US-led coalition on Friday that Iraqi forces were temporarily halting their advance on Mosul for a period expected to last "a couple days".
"They are pausing and repositioning, refitting and doing some back clearing," coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told Pentagon reporters via videoconference.
An Iraqi military statement, apparently issued in response to Dorrian's remarks on the halt, said that "military operations are continuing" and proceeding on schedule.
As Iraqi forces close in on Mosul, there are credible reports of IS carrying out mass executions and seizing tens of thousands of people for use as human shields, the United Nations said.
ISIS' "depraved, cowardly strategy is to attempt to use the presence of civilians to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations", UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
The militants are "effectively using tens of thousands of women, men and children as human shields", he said.
The UN cited reports indicating ISIS has forcibly taken civilians into Mosul, killing those who resist or who were previously members of Iraqi security forces.
ISIS reportedly shot dead 232 people in a single day on Wednesday and killed 24 the previous day, the rights office said.