Odd coalition takes Tikrit and differs on next steps – 8 April 2015
Offensive pushes out remaining ISIS holdouts
Last week the United States stepped in to aid a major Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State [IS] militant group, after several weeks of failed attempts by Iraqi militias to overtake the IS stronghold of Tikrit. The operation, which pushed out the remaining IS militant occupation, was backed by a diverse, and unlikely, combination of Iranian advisers, Iraqi soldiers, Shiite militias, and, in the end, US-led airstrikes which finally sealed the victory. However, the victory in Tikrit while celebrated by the Iraqi government and its allies, could raise two major issues in Iraq’s uncertain domestic and international relationships. The first issue concerns how to proceed in the war against IS with US support. And the second is how to secure the trust and support of the Iraqi Sunni tribes as the government and international community inch closer to acceptance of significant Iranian influence in Iraq.
Hoping to take advantage of the momentum from the Tikrit victory, the US and Iraq initially focused their attention on reclaiming the surrounding territory controlled by IS in the province of Salahaddin, particularly concerning the oil refinery town of Beiji, which is still partly occupied by IS forces. However, that is where the mutual agreement ended. US officials have asserted that the next step is to push the offensive north toward Mosul, IS’s de-facto Iraq headquarters and the country’s second-largest city. On the other hand, Iraqi militias favor a different attack route, going west to push IS out of the cities along the Euphrates River.
This divide between strategic operations of the two allies is indicative of the goals of each. American strategists are looking at the big picture: attempting to take Mosul to eliminate IS in Iraq. The Iraqis, of whom Shi’ite militias make up a significant portion, have a different view - to push IS away from the capital and secure another victory, and without the help of the US. Additionally, the Iraq government is concerned about the possible quagmire of street battles in the highly populated city of Mosul, which would create issues, not only from the military challenge of taking Mosul, but the political issues around potential civilian casualties. The ground needs to be prepared for both of these issues - the military and political - before the difficult and likely deadly struggle is undertaken. Mosul is also majority Sunni, which could exacerbate sectarian conflict with the mostly Shi’ite attacking force. The Iraqis are more confident about pushing into Anbar province, which is mostly open air and desert, will leave IS exposed, vulnerable, and easily targeted by Iraqi forces. This division between US and Iraqi military strategists is not new. The bloody battle of Tikrit, which cost thousands of Iraqi lives, could have been alleviated had Iraq turned to the US for help earlier in the offensive, according to US officials. Further, Iraq’s fragmented security forces continue to be divided over whether and how much to rely on US support and military aid. Despite the division, the US remains at the forefront of the fight against IS, and continue to supply Iraqi forces with training, weapons, and sophisticated equipment to combat IS’ unrefined weaponry and explosives.