This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on April 2, 2015.The paper went to print before the Iraqi military started its operation to root out IS militants from Tikrit in collaboration with the Shia militias. The participation of the militias highlights the challenges to the overall campaign against IS and US-Iranian competition in Iraq which the article aimed to pinpoint.
More than just IS
As Baghdad prepares to retake Mosul from Islamic State forces, Tehran and Washington seem to be locked in a race for prestige in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
On 25 March, US bombers launched their first airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Tikrit, coming off the sidelines to help Iraqi government forces fighting to retake control of the city from the terrorist group.
US president Barack Obama approved the bombardment after a request from Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shia militias that have been fighting alongside the Baghdad government troops move aside.
But the US decision to give air support to the Tikrit offensive, the biggest collaboration so far by the US-led coalition with the anti-IS campaign in Iraq, could define the US role in Iraq for years to come and shape its regional struggle with Iran.
The Americans stayed away from the Tikrit campaign when it started four weeks ago, largely because the United States has been refusing to take part in the operation which was launched without consultation with Washington. They insisted that they could only help if the operations were coordinated by the joint Iraqi-US military centre in Baghdad.
Prior to the Tikrit campaign, US officials leaked reports to the American media about the Iraqi military operation in Tikrit, saying that it had no clear targets. The reports also stirred doubts about whether government forces could beat the IS militants in street battles.
Though the Iraqi forces have regained a string of towns and villages near Tikrit from IS, the leaks also claimed that Iraqi short-term tactical victories would not be enough to defeat the group.
A main US criticism of the Tikrit campaign was its heavy reliance on the Shia militias. The latter’s track record of sectarian violence was highlighted in the American media with warnings that their involvement in more offensives threatened to drive more Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of IS.
It may be no coincidence that several human rights groups also released critical reports about abuses by the Shia militias during the Tikrit offensive. Most of these reports highlighted what they termed “violations of the laws of war” against Sunnis in the wake of the IS retreat from the towns.
These and other media reports carried disgruntled messages to al-Abadi, who is also commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, from Washington which has been leading an international coalition against IS since the terror group made stunning advance in northern Iraq last June.
Al-Abadi has also been under pressure from Brett McGurk, deputy leader of the US-led coalition, and Stuart E. Jones, the US ambassador to Iraq, who have been meeting with him regularly to press him to request coalition airstrikes and sidestep the Shia militias.
But when al-Abadi showed reluctance to heed the US warnings, knowing that he cannot tear up the Iraqi rule book without the green light from Iran, US officials went public to make their point about the offensives.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the operation to reclaim Tikrit was dominated by 20,000 Shia militia forces, which far outnumbered the 3,000 Iraqi troops also taking part in the assault.
Dempsey expressed concern about what might happen after the Shia militia forces took control of the Sunni-dominated city. The Obama administration has been pushing al-Abadi to form a Sunni National Guard to police their areas after the IS withdrawal.
After a recent trip to Iraq, Dempsey said he had seen a “plethora of flags” while flying over the country, but only one official flag of Iraq.
Iran showed its anger over the US joining forces with Iraq in the fight for Tikrit and in forcing the Iran-backed militias to stand down. The Iranians have orchestrated their own propaganda effort to discredit the US-led coalition in the anti-IS campaign.
On Monday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said a US drone strike had killed two of its advisers in Iraq. Iran’s controlled media outlets have been reporting airstrikes by coalition warplanes against Iraqi troop positions. Some of these outlets have been selling blown-up reports about the US maintaining networks of supply lines with the terror group.
The United States and Iran have been in stiff competition since Iraq started its campaign against the jihadists who seized huge swathes of land in Iraq in the summer of last year. Iraqi Shia militia leaders have been saying that they intend to deprive Washington of victory and “glory” in Iraq.
But the political match seems to be more than a contest between Iran and the United States over who is taking ownership of the war against IS. Instead, it seems to be a power play over Iraq and even the Middle East as a whole.
For now, efforts to drive IS fighters from Tikrit have entered their second month. While most Iranian-backed Shia armed groups have boycotted the offensives in protest against the US-led airstrikes, Iraq’s military has proved to be ill-prepared to drive the militants back.
That could have a big impact on the liberation of the remaining territories from IS insurgents, especially Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. In February, US Central Command officials disclosed that the battle for Mosul would likely begin in April or May.
Yet, the disagreements over the militias’ role may have far-reaching consequences for Iraq’s fragile government. Al-Abadi seems to be caught in a US and Iranian double-pincer that could not only cost him his job but also the country’s stability.
Since the militias were ordered to step aside, relations between al-Abadi and their leaders have sunk very low, and some of them have even accused the prime minister of hampering the liberation of Tikrit by capitulating to the American conditions.
Others have accused al-Abdi of “selling off” the Shias to the Americans.
On Monday, Hadi al-Amri, a key leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the name given to the militias, warned that his fighters “will not fire a single bullet” unless the US airstrikes stop.
This is a vital moment for al-Abadi, and it provides his government with possibly its greatest challenge since it was formed in August last year. While the row has brought al-Abadi to the brink of a conflict with the Shia militias, any caving in to the militias will be disturbing to the Iraqi Sunnis and the Americans.
Sunni leaders in Mosul have insisted that the liberation of their city should be carried out without involvement by Iran or the Shia militias except Iraqi volunteers and forces from the Iraqi army.
Tribes in Anbar, another Sunni-dominated province awaiting liberation from IS, have also resisted the participation of the Shia militias in the operations.
Meanwhile, Washington has intensified pressure on al-Abadi’s serving as the putative defender and protector of the Iraqi Sunnis.
On Sunday, US vice-president Joe Biden called al-Abadi to remind him of the importance of “the protection of civilians and of ensuring all armed groups act under the control of the state.”
According to a White House statement, Biden reiterated Washington’s demand that the Iraqi government enable fighters from Sunni provinces to participate in reclaiming their own territory from IS.
Washington is expected to increase the pressure ahead of a visit to the White House by al-Abadi in mid-April to discuss US military cooperation with Iraq in the joint fight against IS.
Moreover, the Tikrit offensive and the widely expected campaign to retake Mosul could have an impact on wider regional conflicts involving Iran with the Sunni Arab world, if Shia militias resume their participation in the anti-IS campaign.
Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of fuelling the conflict in a number of countries across the Middle East, including Iraq.
The Mosul operation is specifically sensitive to neighbouring Turkey, a largely Sunni populated nation which maintains close ties to Iraqi Sunnis.
While Turkey is concerned about Iran’s role, many in the country emphasise historical affiliations with Mosul going back to the Ottoman occupation of Iraq.
Twelve years after the US-led invasion that turned Iraq into a playground for terrorists and foreign forces, the bickering over the war against IS is not about defeating the terror group as much as it is about regional power.