Two weeks ago, the seemingly effective Iraqi operation to retake the city of Tikrit from ISIS ground to an abrupt halt, the “final push” delayed for an indefinite period out of concerns over collateral damage, according to Iraqi officials. It was widely speculated the more pertinent problem was that Islamic State forces proved to be much harder to dislodge than anyone wanted to admit, so time was needed to bring up reinforcements and prepare the battlespace.
Those suspicious seem to have been borne out, because the final push for Tikrit is back on the calendar and it is going to involve American planes flying cover for Iranian ground forces.
“This prospect marks an important shift in the war against ISIS,” the Jerusalem Post reports. “The Pentagon has been hesitant to supply Iraqi forces, who are fighting along side Iranian generals and tanks, with air support, insisting that it would not coordinate too closely with the Iranians.”
But now that long-denied military cooperation with Iran is at hand, with U.S. planes already running reconnaissance flights and preliminary bombing missions over the area, while Shiite militia units with Iranian commanders move into position. According to the New York Times, American officials sought to portray the operation as an effort to “seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.”
“Mr. Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with United States troops,” U.S. officials explained to the NYT. “Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported on Sunday to have left the area.”
Under this reading of events, the reason American planes were not helping Iraqi troops in the offensive that ultimately stalled out was that Administration officials feared the Iranian presence on the ground was too commanding, making it more likely that bombing runs would be seen as “America becoming Iran’s air force.”
On the other hand, as the Times writes, “If the Americans did not engage, they feared becoming marginalized by Tehran in a country where they had spilled much blood in the last decade.” With the Quds Force commander gone, the Goldilocks mixture of Iraqi Army forces and Iran-backed Shiite militia is just right for U.S. intervention. (How confident are we that Suleimani won’t magically reappear in the Tikrit theater, at the close of a successful operation, and claim it as an Iranian victory after all?)
The officials quoted by the NYT felt that if Tirkit is retaken from ISIS with this mixture of forces, it will be seen as a rebuke of Iranian influence. “Taking back Tikrit is important, but it gives us an opportunity to have our half of the operation win this one,” one Administration source said before admitting, “It’s somewhat of a gamble.”
“The administration also hopes that a Tikrit victory with American air power will ensure that it is their coalition with Mr. Abadi’s forces, and not the faction led by Mr. Suleimani, that then proceeds to try to recapture the larger and more pivotal city of Mosul,” adds the Times.
“Some of the weaklings in the [Iraqi] Army say that we need the Americans, but we say we do not need the Americans,” sneered a top Shiite militia leader. Does this Administration really need another lesson in how air power alone cannot take and hold real estate?
Iran and its Shiite proxies are big players in the Iraqi political system, too:
Officials are scrambling to train more Iraqi soldiers for a push on Mosul, and especially to include more Sunni Arab forces in the offensive. Tikrit and Mosul are heavily Sunni cities, and there are widespread concerns that using predominantly Shiite forces in the campaigns could lead to sectarian abuses. Further, it is not clear that Mr. Abadi has the political strength or will to keep reining in the militiamen or Iran’s influence, both which have powerful sway in his Shiite political coalition.
The odds on a payoff from that “gamble” to parlay a successful Tikrit operation, followed by a heavy attack on ISIS’ Iraqi stronghold of Mosul over the summer, into the marginalization of Iran look longer with every paragraph of the NYT story. It’s a blind roll of the dice, and a situation American forces have been pushed into by the stalled Tikrit offensive, not a battle of our choosing selected for its potential political value against Iran.
The Wall Street Journal portrays the beginning of U.S. airstrikes as an expression of frustration with the inability of ground forces to retake the city, with a senior U.S. official gamely pinning the blame on the Shiites: “Tikrit shows the complete failure by Iran to produce results on the ground.” While understandable, the Obama administration’s foreign policy regarding Tehran seemingly in every other venue is to acknowledge them as “partners in peace.” And if the problem with the Tikrit operation stems partly from the performance of Iraqi Army units, it’s going to be tough to minimize Iranian influence with finger-pointing press conferences.