The American outlook for the battle of Tikrit is a triumph of hope over experience.
U.S. military officials hope that Iranian-backed forces eject fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State from Tikrit—giving both the U.S. and Iran a victory—but stop short of using that win to carry out sectarian reprisals against Sunnis there. U.S. officials said publicly throughout the week that if Shiite forces, many of which see the hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as the birthplace of Sunni-led oppression, choose to lash out, the U.S. could offer few options on how to respond.
It is one of the second order effects of a war plan hinging on two foes—Iran and the United States—sharing the same short-term goals in Tikrit, but having divergent long-term visions for Iraq. Iraqi forces were not strong enough on their own to defeat ISIS in Tikrit, so Iranian ground forces have swooped in and advised, equipped and fought alongside Iraqi forces, hoping to increase their leverage on Iraq along the way. In just two days since they first entered Tikrit, the 23,000 Iranian-backed Iraqi forces and Shiite-dominated militias have nearly reclaimed the city, giving them the biggest victory against ISIS and setting the stage for the potential ethnic cleansing.
Iraqi forces moved into Tikrit with such speed, it even surprised Baghdad, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, interviewed on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday. What will emerge from that win has many inside the U.S. national security community on edge.
“We are eyes wide open with respect to what is happening,” said Secretary of State John Kerry before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this week.
The U.S. military has not provided any logistics or combat air support to the Tikrit attack, calling it an “Iraqi operation.” Rather, its eight-month air campaign has made it all but impossible for ISIS to mobilize large formations to Tikrit and help fend off the Iraqi offensive. All the while, the U.S. is not speaking directly to its Iranian foe but rather, it appears, through the Iraqi military.
There already have been reports and videos on Twitter that suggest Iraqi forces have burned down houses as they moved through Tikrit but they could not be independently confirmed. And U.S. officials said there have seen few signs of an Iraqi government making strides toward national reconciliation.
According to an Associated Press report, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on March 2, “I really don’t think there’s any way of reversing or changing the picture fundamentally in Iraq unless the Sunnis are included ... and so far that’s been a struggle.”
But Pentagon officials said they have no evidence of the widespread ethnic cleansing that many feared—at least, they stressed, not yet. Some believe both Iran and Iraq understand such attacks could lead the U.S.-led coalition, and the air support that comes with it, to evaporate. Indeed, suspending the U.S. training program for the Iraqis forces and scaling back to counter-terrorism is the most likely immediate U.S. response should ethnic cleansing begin. Some noted that Iraqi Shiites repeatedly refrained from retaliatory attacks in the face of daily bombings by Islamic State forbearer al Qaeda in Iraq during the U.S. occupation, in part, because they understood it hurt their long-term prospects.
As Shiite-dominated forces have moved through Tikrit, “They have shown a significant amount of restraint and discipline,” a U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast.
Such assessments are too optimistic given that the Iranian-backed Iraqi forces have just started to reach Tikrit’s densest population centers. Still others note that the forces may not be conducting such attacks because most of the civilians who would be targeted fled the city for places like the northern Kurdish-dominated city of Irbil.
And it remains unclear whether the ISIS fighters who once were entrenched in Tikrit are still there.
“Let’s see what happens when they are in the heart of Tikrit,” a second defense official told The Daily Beast.
Neither Iran nor Iraq can afford to destroy the city financially. The Iraqi government is struggling to sustain itself amid low oil prices. According to a Wall Street Journal piece, the plunge in oil prices to roughly $47 a barrel has rocked the Iraqi budget, which devotes a quarter of it spending—$20 billion—to security and defense.
The Iraqi forces are not leveling the city because they have a “limitation on the offensive fighting power. They don’t have the sustainably of the American military machine” supply chain management, said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War. “They don’t have the industrial base to do it. The Iraqi government cannot sustain unlimited finances.”
The strange bedfellows that emerged in the battle of Tikrit are coming up daily in Washington. National Security advisors took pains to stress they are not collaborating with Iran against the common enemy of ISIS, despite that both nations, while foes, share a similar goal. On Friday, CIA Director John Brennan was asked after a speech in Washington about potential cooperation with Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq and answered “No.”
“I am not engaging — liaising — with Mr. Qassem Suleimani, who is the head of the Quds Force in Iran,” Brennan said.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter dodged a question put to him at a briefing with his U.K. counterpart about what the U.S would do should reprisal attacks begin.
Senior military officers have overtly expressed their concerns without outlining what they would do about it.
“The activity of the Iranians and their support for the Iraqi Security Forces is a positive thing in military terms against ISIL—but we are all concerned about what happens after the drums stops beating, ISIL is defeated, and whether the government of Iraq will remain on a path to provide an inclusive government for all of the various groups. We’re very concerned about that,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing in which he appeared with Kerry.