Don’t hold your breath for a formal announcement, but the U.S. just declared ownership over the war in Iraq. The newest round of airstrikes take American military power out of a supporting role and into the lead.
Wednesday’s Pentagon statement that the U.S. would begin conducting airstrikes to support an Iraqi military campaign was a high-water mark for intervention in Iraq. But the military mission has been expanding since airstrikes were first launched last August to protect small teams of U.S. advisers and Iraqi minorities besieged by ISIS. At first the air war responded to emergencies, then it grew to assisting Kurdish forces and striking key ISIS targets to weaken the group and halt its advance.
“At the request of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Coalition today launched airstrikes in and around Tikrit in support of Iraqi Security Forces ground operations,” the Pentagon announced Wednesday in a press release. The purpose of the strikes: to destroy ISIS targets and enable “Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to continue offensive operations.”
Before Wednesday, the U.S. had been largely sitting out the battle, Iraq’s biggest anti-ISIS operation to date, because of the leading role played by Iranian-backed militia forces and military advisers. At the start of the offensive, U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey estimated that the balance of Iraq’s 24,000 forces included 20,000 “Iranian-trained and somewhat Iranian-equipped” Shia militiamen.
But as the militia-led effort bogged down last week, Baghdad asked for American assistance. The U.S. agreed—but with conditions.
The Shia militiamen “pulled back” east of the central Iraqi city of Tikrit once the U.S. began conducting airstrikes, General Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Central Command commander, told Congress on Thursday.
“I will not—and I hope we will never—coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias,” Austin said. “Preconditions for us to provide support were that the Iraqi government had to be in charge of this operation. We had to know exactly who was on the ground.”
In the past the U.S. has tacitly coordinated with militia forces. The result in the city of Amerli, where an ISIS siege was broken by a militia-led ground offensive backed by U.S. airstrikes, was a military victory followed by sectarian violence. After liberating Amerli, Shia militias and security forces sacked surrounding Sunni towns, destroying villages and displacing thousands of civilians.
By asking for American help in an operation that had previously relied on Iranian planners and proxy forces, Iraq’s leaders sent a message: Either Baghdad wants the U.S. to counter Iranian influence, or it has determined that Iran alone won’t cut it and American military power is needed. Or both. Whatever the reason, the outcome is that the U.S. has agreed to help, and by doing so it takes on public responsibility for the outcome. If Iraq can’t break the stalemate now, it’s an American defeat, as well. If Iraq liberates Tikrit under U.S. warplanes, and the sectarian militias really do sit the battle out, it’s an American victory.
And there could be many turns in the fighting to come. The Iranian-backed militias supposedly stepped back east of the Tigris River. But that region had long served as a staging area for fighters since the campaign began March 1. Austin also told lawmakers that Iranian forces and advisers—and presumably their weapons, tanks, and expertise—had also fled.
If that is true, the question now is whether Iran has been weakened or whether it has made a strategic retreat with the intent of reengaging after American airstrikes do the heavy lifting.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether all of those Shia militiamen really have left the city. While several militias said Thursday that they were suspending their operations in Tikrit, there were also several unconfirmed local reports of rebels fighting in the city.
Austin said Thursday that 4,000 Iraqi security forces, special forces, and police were now on the ground in Tikrit—far less than the 23,000 Iraqi militia and government forces previously attacking the city.
Militarily, there is little to suggest that the 4,000 Iraqi forces, even with U.S. airstrikes, can win back Tikrit from ISIS, even though the group has less than a thousand fighters in the city.
And in similar previous campaigns, local forces have struggled to hold territory taken back from ISIS.
In the Syrian city of Kobani, for example, where as many as 5,000 Kurdish peshmerga fighters fought aggressively to keep the city out of ISIS’s hands, strikes have continued months after U.S. officials claimed the city fell out of ISIS hands. U.S. officials said the strikes now are focused 30 miles south and southeast of the city where ISIS fighters fled. And in Kobani, ISIS forces were seeking new terrain, not entrenched there for months, as they have been in Tikrit.
ISIS also retook the Iraqi city of Baiji just weeks after it was seized by Iraqi forces with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
Whatever the outcome of the fighting in Tikrit, the city is only a waypoint—the first battle of many more to come.
Compared to Tikrit, ISIS’s stronghold in Mosul is many times larger, full of civilians, and at a greater distance from the Iraqi army’s supply lines. If U.S. airpower was needed to break ISIS in Tikrit, there’s no telling yet what could be called for when it’s time to take Mosul.
It’s too early to say where this Iraq war will lead, but glance backward and the direction appears clear: toward a larger and more expansive military commitment.
Twelve years after the invasion of Iraq and four more since the last American troops left, it’s our war again. It could be a different kind of war this time around. Instead of a massive occupying army, the current conflict could continue to rely on airpower with only a small component of specialized ground forces. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the war will be any less open-ended than it was in the 10 years after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.