As Iraq’s Shiite militias attack Islamic State positions southwest of Mosul, a confrontation could be looming with Turkey over the city of Tal Afar.
Comprising predominantly ethnic Turkmen, the town is significant to Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is insisting that his country has historical claims in the region dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
Turkmen are an ethnic minority in northern Iraq sharing a Turkic heritage with Turkey.
The former Ottoman stronghold has been controlled by IS since early 2014 and has been a key trading link for IS between Mosul and its de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria.
Veiled women walk past a billboard that carries a verse from Koran urging women to wear a hijab in the northern province of Raqqa, March 31, 2014.
Since last Saturday, a group of Baghdad-aligned militias called Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) has moved swiftly westward, taking control of dozens of desert villages to try to eventually retake the town.
PMF is an umbrella organization of several Shiite militias formed in 2014 after the Iraqi army melted away following the IS attacks on Mosul. On paper, the organization is under the control of the Iraqi government, but many of its most powerful groups answer to Iran.
Turkey objects to the militia’s move, saying militias have long had a history of ill-treatment of Sunnis. It has warned PMF to stay clear of Tal Afar, saying it fears the Shiite militia will brutalize the town’s Turkmen population, which is divided between Sunnis and Shiites.
During a Turkish Republic Day reception earlier this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Tal Afar is a very sensitive issue for us.
We definitely do not regard (the militia’s involvement) positively in Tal Afar.”
Ankara reportedly began moving tanks near the Iraqi border on Thursday.
The show of forces alarmed Iraqi officials who have warned Turkey to stay out of the battle against IS in Mosul and its environs.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned this week that Turkey “will pay the price” if it intervenes.
"We do not want war with Turkey, and we do not want a confrontation with Turkey,” Abadi said. "But if a confrontation happens, we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy and we will deal with it as an enemy."
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, center, raises an Iraqi flag in the city of Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, after it was retaken by the security forces, Dec. 29, 2015.
Karim Nuri, a spokesman one of PMF, told VOA on Thursday that the offensive to Tal Afar is ongoing.
“We will continue moving forwards until recovering the town from IS terrorists,” he told VOA’s Kurdish service.
Turkey’s threats are “unrealistic,” Nuri said, adding that Tal Afar must be freed from IS.
“Our forces who will liberate Tal Afar are sons of the town,” he said. “If Erdogan was concerned for Turkmen, why did he let IS attack them?”
Yahya Barzinji contributed to this report.