By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary groups said they started an offensive on Saturday against Islamic State positions west of Mosul, assisting in a campaign to take back the city.
The operation will target Tal Afar, an Islamic State-held area close to Turkey where a sizeable ethnic Turkmen population lives, which could cause concern in Ankara.
Earlier announcements by the militias, collectively known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), on advancing toward Mosul have drawn warnings from human rights groups concerned about sectarian violence in the mainly Sunni province. Shi'ites make up a majority in Iraq but Sunnis are predominant in the north and the west.
The PMF said it had started moving early on Saturday toward Tal Afar from positions south of Mosul, Islamic State's last major city stronghold in Iraq.
"The wounded city of Tal Afar (is among) the cities to be liberated," said a statement on the PMF's website.
The PMF officially reports to the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who on Oct. 17 announced the start of an offensive targeting Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, with the backing of a U.S-led coalition.
The PMF was formed in 2014 to help push back Islamic State's sweeping advance through northern and western provinces.
Amnesty International says that in previous campaigns, the Shi'ite militias have committed "serious human rights violations, including war crimes" against civilians fleeing Islamic State-held territory.
The U.N in July said it had a list of more than 640 Sunni Muslim men and boys reportedly abducted by a Shi’ite militia in Falluja, a former militant stronghold west of Baghdad, and a list of about 50 others who were summarily executed or tortured to death.
The government and the PMF say a limited number of violations have occurred and that they were investigated but they deny that abuses were widespread and systematic.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Jason Neely)