Iraq is set to deploy Iran-backed Shi'ite militiamen to fight Islamic State (IS) militants in Anbar province, according to reports on April 30.
The reports come as IS militants encroached once again on the center of Anbar's capital, Ramadi. An RFE/RL correspondent in Iraq reported on April 29 that the Anbar Provincial Council has warned -- yet again -- that Ramadi's city center is on the verge of falling to IS unless military reinforcements and supplies are dispatched to the city.
As well as threatening to overrun the center of Ramadi, IS militants remain in control of the provincial capital's western and southern neighborhoods and Albu Faraj, which is just north of the Euphrates River and which was the target of an IS launched on April 10.
Both Anbar authorities and Sunni tribal forces have made numerous calls for Baghdad to send reinforcements to help battle IS forces in the province and particularly in Ramadi, one of the last remaining towns in the almost completely Sunni province that has not yet fallen to IS.
But the Iraqi government has refrained from deploying Shi'ite forces from the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units or PMU) militia to Anbar, fearing that to do so could ignite sectarian violence.
The United States has also been concerned about the deployment of PMU militias, which are backed and armed by Iran.
The PMU were created in June 2014 in response to a fatwa by Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The PMU is a large force -- according to Foreign Policy, it commands around 120,000 fighters compared to the Iraqi Army's relatively meager 48,000 troops.
Yet the concerns over the PMU are not limited to the fact that they are supported by Tehran.
Although the PMU have been effective against IS in Iraq, the United Nations and rights groups have documented abuses carried out by these Shi'ite militias against Sunnis and other minorities.
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in February found that Shi'ite militias had stepped up abuses against local Sunnis in and around the rural area of Muqdadiyya, some 80 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. Eyewitnesses testified that Shi'ite militiamen had set fire to homes in Sunni villages and distributed flyers threatening local Sunnis with death if they did not leave.
A March 10 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner found that PMU and other Shi'ite militias had seemed to operate with total impunity, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.
PMU 'Needed In Anbar'
PMU leaders, meanwhile, have argued that the Shi'ite militias are needed in Anbar if Iraq is to succeed in ousting IS militants from the province.
On April 26, PMU leaders said that the political rejection of their forces in Anbar had actually helped IS to control most of the province and, had PMU been present to combat IS, the gunmen would not have been able to occupy the area.
Hadi Ameri, a leader of the PMU, told Kurdish outlet, Rudaw, on April 27 that his men would not wait any longer for permission from any parties to deploy in Anbar.
The PMU has always responded to calls from top religious authorities to repel (IS) gunmen, so we will participate in the Anbar military campaign, Ameri said.
Sunni tribal forces in Anbar have also called on Baghdad to send Shi'ite militias to help them combat IS gunmen.
Tribal leader Mohammed Hais said on April 20 that a group of 80 tribal leaders from Anbar had called on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send more military aid, especially from the Iraqi Army's Golden Forces and Shi'ite militias of PMU.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk