Iraqi Campaign to Drive ISIS From Tikrit Reveals Tensions With U.S.
By ANNE BARNARDMARCH 3, 2015
BAGHDAD — Tensions between Iraq and the United States over how to battle the Islamic State broke into the open on Tuesday, as Iraqi officials declared that they would fight on their own timetable with or without American help, and as United States warplanes conspicuously sat out the biggest Iraqi counteroffensive yet amid concerns over Iran’s prominent role.
On Monday, Iraq launched a politically sensitive operation to oust Islamic State militants from Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, without seeking American approval, officials said. Even as Iraq was taking a first step into a bigger battle to oust the Islamic State from the northern city of Mosul, it was also signaling that its alliance with the United States might be more fraught than officials had let on.
American officials, for their part, voiced unease with the prominent role of Iran and its allied Shiite militias in the Tikrit operation. Shiite militia leaders said that their fighters made up more than two-thirds of the pro-government force of 30,000, and that the Iranian spymaster Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was helping to lead from near the front lines.
Alongside them were advisers and troops from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, operating artillery, rocket launchers and surveillance drones, according to American officials, who said that the Iranian forces’ participation in the assault in Iraq’s Sunni heartland could inflame the sectarian divide that the Islamic State has exploited.
The operation comes against the backdrop of Iraqi irritation with American officials after they declared that the assault against the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, would begin in April and then backpedaled, saying Iraqi forces would not be ready until fall, if then.
Ali al-Alaa, a close aide to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, expressed frustration with what he described as a sluggish American pace and pessimistic American estimates of how long it would take to drive the Islamic State from Mosul and the western province of Anbar.
“The Americans continue procrastinating about the time it will take to liberate the country,” he said in an interview. “Iraq will liberate Mosul and Anbar without them.”
Abbas al-Moussawi, the spokesman for Mr. Abadi’s predecessor and rival, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said that there was “a crisis of trust” between the Americans and the Iraqis, and that “if they will not resolve this problem, we’ll have a big problem in Mosul.”
Still, the United States-led coalition continued to bombard Islamic State militants in other parts of Iraq. And a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Gen. Tahseen al-Sheikhly, insisted in an interview that Iraq’s military cooperation with the United States was in fine shape, adding that American officials regularly participated in joint operation meetings in Baghdad that include representatives of Shiite militias.
American and Iraqi officials alike said that the Iraqis had not asked for American help in Tikrit, but some Iraqi officials suggested that was because they knew it would not be forthcoming. And while both sides said that the Americans had been warned of the operation, the defense spokesman, General Sheikhly, said that the “zero hour” — the start time of the assault — was known only to Mr. Abadi.
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“We still welcome the international alliance’s support,” said Mr. Alaa, the prime minister’s aide. “But if they won’t be supporting us, we have no problem.”
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But progress appeared slow in the push against Tikrit on Tuesday, with no breakthrough in the Iraqi coalition’s efforts to enter the city. Iraqi military officials said they had reached the outskirts of Al Dour, just south of the city, and were advancing slowly after freeing 13 police officers held there by the Islamic State.
Mohammad al-Turkomani, a leader in the militias known as the “popular mobilization” forces, said that with American participation in Tikrit, “we would have moved twice as fast.”
Since the Islamic State swept into Iraq in June, Iran and the United States, longtime enemies that both support the Iraqi government, have maintained an uneasy de facto alliance against the group, with the United States-led coalition unleashing airstrikes, and Shiite militias aligned with Iran fighting alongside army and Kurdish forces on the ground. There have also been growing reports of Iranian forces’ directly joining the fight within Iraq.
The Americans’ discomfort has grown as Mr. Abadi’s government has been unable to mobilize significant Sunni forces to join the fight, something that American officials consider crucial to breaking the Islamic State’s hold on many heavily Sunni areas.
For their part, Iraqi officials increasingly complain that American support has not been as robust as Iran’s. Many Iraqis resent what they see as American squeamishness about the militias, which by all accounts have been crucial to holding back the Islamic State after regular army units fled its assault.
“Americans consider us a militia that does not represent the government, while we are defending the country and helping the government,” said Mueen al-Kadhimy, a leader in the Badr Organization, a prominent militia. “We are the people of Iraq.”
The Tikrit offensive could prove to be a first step toward driving back the Islamic State, or it could deepen longstanding sectarian and political divides that the militants have exploited to win support from some Iraqi Sunnis and acquiescence from others. The group has also used brutal intimidation tactics against Sunnis who reject it or support the government in Baghdad.
But at the same time, Shiite militias have been accused of reprisals against the Sunni population, many of whom regard them with suspicion and fear.
The Tikrit operation is the Iraqis’ first attempt to seize the area since June, when Islamic State militants massacred more than 1,000 Iraqi Shiite soldiers as they fled a nearby military base, Camp Speicher. There have been fears that Shiite militia members from the same areas many of the soldiers hailed from could take revenge on local Sunnis if they enter Tikrit, and some militia leaders have openly called the assault a revenge operation.
“There’s a risk there,” said one senior American military official, expressing concern that the Iraqi operations might not pay sufficient attention to the risks of civilian casualties from indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire.
But the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing battle, acknowledged that if the Iraqis and their Iranian advisers maintained strict controls on their targeting and the operation resulted in “fewer ISIS fighters and chasing them from Tikrit, that’s not unhelpful.”