by Wayne White
A desperate Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi last week requested US air support to jumpstart Iraq’s stalled offensive in Tikrit. Many observers describe this as an American triumph. Yet, Abadi’s initial choice to ignore Washington’s concerns and use mainly Iranian-backed Shi’a militias to attack self-styled Islamic State (ISIS or IS) forces there without US involvement begs the question of whether Abadi and his cronies are reliable partners. Indeed Abadi’s entire war effort has been clouded by this episode. Whether the sectarian nature of the conflict can be dialed down is anyone’s guess.
Baghdad kicked off its assault on the Sunni Arab city of Tikrit 80 miles north of Baghdad on March 2. Notoriously abusive Shi’a militias comprised over 80 percent of the government force. Clearly, this was an attempt by Abadi and his Shi’a political backers to end-run Washington to show that substantial gains could be made their way: using militiamen with a sectarian axe to grind instead of steadily replacing them in the front lines with regular Iraqi Army personnel.
The character of the militia units involved is obvious. They showcased the Tikrit operation as revenge for IS’s execution of Shi’a soldiers there last summer. This quest for sectarian vengeance caused most Sunni Arab residents to flee. The militias trundled along with them an array of homemade and Iranian manufactured rocket mortars and rocket artillery systems notorious for their inaccuracy (i.e. inflicting lots of collateral damage). Yet, despite militia bravado, their attack stalled by mid-March amid fierce IS resistance and improvised explosive devices in the congestion of the old city and two other locales, with as many as 40-60 militiamen dying per day.
The Deal with Abadi
Although the US supposedly made withdrawal of militias from the battle a condition for providing airstrikes, questions linger. Reports out of Washington insist their withdrawal from the fighting was required, along with Iranian advisers. General Lloyd Austin, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) chief, said somewhat ambiguously on March 26 that US air support depended on the Iraqi government being “in charge” of forces in Tikrit. But Austin added: “I will not…coordinate or cooperate with Shi’a militias.” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter took a clear, tough line yesterday insisting that militias also be excluded from all US-backed military operations post-Tikrit.
Two fiercely anti-American militias defiantly asserted that they left only to protest US involvement. One departing militia declared that it would not fight “in the same trench as the Americans.” Another said that the US had only entered the fray to “usurp” their “victory.”
Although General Austin told senators on March 26 that Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (previously coordinating the militia campaign) had quit the area, the leader of one militia, the Badr Organization, dismissed talk that it had been asked to withdraw and said that it was planning to stay. And over the weekend militiamen were present at the central Iraqi battle headquarters, with some reportedly still fighting alongside the army. The national Iraqi “Popular Mobilization” (militia) headquarters said that its fighters remained “determined to liberate Tikrit.”
How long it will take the Iraqi army to finish taking Tikrit is unknown, with most (and many of the best) of Baghdad’s combatants quitting the fight. Little had changed since the beginning of US airstrikes a week ago, aside from skirmishing and pinpointing targets for US aircraft through yesterday. Iraqi Army Commander General Jalil Tawfiq said on March 28: “We’re not in any hurry.” Abadi predicted the day before that Tikrit would fall “soon,” but an Iraqi official in Tikrit said: “In Iraq, soon is two weeks, not two days.” Finally, today the Tikrit provincial government complex fell to government forces, but the Badr Organization militia claims that it participated.
Is the US going to look the other way and continue providing air support despite the presence of at least one major militia? Perhaps the ambiguity suggested above by General Austin is the real bottom line. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seemed to be splitting the difference in Baghdad today when he called on Iraq merely to “bring volunteer armed groups fighting for the government under government control.”
Where is the Iraqi Army?
With only several thousand regulars manning the front lines in Tikrit (out of a mixed force of over 20,000 before), why wasn’t a considerably greater army contingent mustered from the start? It has been 9 months since the army rout in Mosul last summer. Even back then, however, considerably less than half the entire army was wrecked. Thousands of troops have been in action around Baghdad—and various other locales, especially in IS-dominated al-Anbar Governate. That, however, still leaves tens of thousands of army cadres under arms, but not on the battle lines.
Although the United States and other coalition military advisors are running relatively small re-training programs, it is disturbing that thousands more army effectives could not have been readied for battle by other means. Whipping an ill-led, corrupt, and dazed army back into shape takes time. However, there has been quite enough time to field a more respectable number of serviceable combat troops from such a large pool of military cadres.
Could it be that the army’s problems stem, at least in part, from a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Abadi and his Shi’a cohorts?
That is why the turn of events in Tikrit to temporary US advantage of sorts should not generate too much optimism. Abadi’s continued reliance on Shi’a militias and then using them in a gambit to part ways with Washington’s effort to greatly reduce—not increase—the sectarian Shi’a vs. Sunni Arab character of the anti-IS struggle in Iraq is highly suspicious. Foot dragging on the revival of the army and Sunni Arab political outreach would be consistent with an intent to sustain rather than reduce Shi’a militia involvement in the overall anti-IS struggle.
Ominously, the pattern of Abadi’s straying from policies he enunciated last year when he sought to convince official Washington he was a desirable partner smacks of the toxic anti-Sunni Arab policies of his discredited predecessor, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Aside from Maliki’s ouster and the firing of a number of “political” generals in reaction to the June 2014 army collapse, almost all of Maliki’s former government colleagues remain in place, and vengeful anti-Sunni Arab factions retain their power in parliament.
Their massed opposition probably prevented Abadi—whether willing or not—from making the sweeping assurances to Sunni Arabs that the alienation and persecution they experienced under Maliki was history. Yet, only those fervent assurances could energize many Sunni Arab tribes, factions, and localities to join government forces against IS. That would spare Baghdad from the slow, grinding battles to expel IS from larger urban areas that would leave Sunni Arab population centers in ruins.
Absent a genuinely high-minded and empowered Abadi able to bridge sectarian divides (and a vigilant Washington), the anti-IS struggle in Iraq will remain a prolonged ugly slog. It will not only leave Sunni Arab grievances unaddressed, but further inflame them. If that is to be Iraq’s future, yet another violent manifestation of Sunni Arab defiance farther down the road would only be a matter of time.