Aid convoys have begun making regular deliveries to Mosul districts recaptured from ISIS
The columns of trucks and cars carrying food, water and blankets from Shi'ite cities in southern Iraq are welcomed by hungry and war-weary residents of Mosul, Islamic State's last major Iraqi stronghold.
But their affiliation with the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – a state-run umbrella including Shi'ite militias – is clear, as they fly the flags of those groups and are often accompanied by heavily armed men.
Local leaders and many among the Mosul population say it could be the first sign of Shi'ite parties trying to extend their influence as the battle against the jihadists winds up.
Perversely, they say, the humanitarian help raises the spectre of sectarian strife in a country torn apart by it.
The PMF says the convoys are charitable and nothing more, and that the weapons are to protect those bringing supplies on long drives from the south.
The tension the armed presence can create, however, is already visible.
Chilling photographs released from Mosul Thu, March 16, 2017
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces push further into the Islamic State-held western half of Mosul, capturing a damaged bridge which could link up their units on either side of the Tigris river
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An Iraqi special forces soldier checks men for explosive belts as they cross from Islamic State controlled part of Mosul to Iraqi forces controlled part of Mosul
Humanitarian work … does not mean demographic change
During a terse exchange on Sunday with Iraqi police, gunmen on a convoy from the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala jumped off their vehicles at a checkpoint south of Mosul carrying assault rifles, some with fingers on triggers.
A policeman mounted the gun turret of an armoured car in case the argument escalated.
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"No problem, insha'allah," said one of the convoy organisers, who gave his name only as Ali.
The trucks carrying food, water and blankets from Shi'ite cities are welcomed by hungry residents
The vehicles were eventually waved through into Mosul, flying the banner of a Kerbala-based Shi'ite militia.
A local tribal leader and former councilman for Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, said this kind of action laid bare Shi'ite attempts to expand influence in mainly Sunni northwestern Iraq.
"Shi'ite brothers have exploited the war conditions to pave the way for their project, it's a gradual infiltration," Sheikh Ali said. He asked not to be identified by his last name for fear of reprisals.
"It's "Shi'isation" of Mosul city – an attempt at hegemony."
Battle for Mosul Tue, January 12, 2016
A major offensive to recapture Mosul from ISIS continues.
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Members of the Iraqi rapid response forces fire missile toward Islamic State militants during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in Somer district of eastern Mosul
Abdul Rahman al-Wagga, a current council member, said with Islamic State ousted there was concern over encroachment by political factions with armed branches that have not previously had a strong presence in the area.
"This aid … is being brought in by factions or parties which have armed wings.
"When a political side comes to a city or region, and has an armed wing, the fear is that this armed wing will be used for political interests," he said.
Senior PMF figure Kareem al-Nuri denied there were political goals behind the aid.
"These fears have no place," he said.
"Humanitarian work … does not mean demographic change," he added, saying the convoys were the "duty" of the PMF, and were to show solidarity and build trust.