Iran backs Iraq military campaign to reclaim Tikrit from ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iran took a leading role in the Iraqi military’s largest offensive yet to reclaim territory from Islamic State, throwing drones, heavy weaponry and ground forces into the battle while the U.S. remained on the sidelines.

The operation that began Monday aims to retake Tikrit, best known as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, 80 miles north of the capital Baghdad. In addition to supplying drones, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard force has fighters on the ground with Iraqi units, mostly operating artillery and rocket batteries, according to a U.S. military official. Iraqi Shiite militias closely allied with Iran are also heavily involved.

Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency reported that Qasem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard’s overseas unit Quds Force, was on the ground near Tikrit advising commanders.

The offensive is a test of Iraqi security forces’ fitness for the much more daunting challenge of recapturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

It has also thrown a new spotlight on Shiite Iran’s role in assisting Shiite-dominated Iraq to regain control of large parts of the country taken by the Sunni radical group Islamic State. Tehran has wielded increasing influence over Iraq’s military affairs after Iraqi security forces proved unable to contain the Islamic State onslaught that began in summer. [Continue reading…]

Time adds: [M]ilitary planners believe that Tikrit’s Sunnis have grown tired of ISIS’s harsh rule for 10 months. They hope that some of those Sunnis will now be willing to turn their guns against ISIS. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has offered these Sunni tribes a pardon, and a last chance to come back into the fold with the national government.

“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” said Abadi at a press conference on Sunday in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.

During the American occupation of Iraq, these local Sunni tribes did rise-up against ISIS’s Al-Qaeda predecessor and fought in coordination with US-forces against other Sunni militiamen through the Sunni Awakening Movement.

“Sunni tribes of Tikrit could turn against ISIS,” says Hamed al-Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqi parliament and an influential Sunni politician. “They prefer the security forces to be in control. They would rather be with the Iraqi forces than ISIS.”

While tribal leaders may not want to see ISIS wielding all the influence in their territory, they’re even less likely to want to see Shiite militiamen controlling their streets.

“We know that there are Sunni tribal sheiks that don’t like [ISIS],” says Pollack. “But there are other Sunni sheiks who are more scared of the Shiite militias than they are of [ISIS].”

And they have reason to be. These Shiite militias that are marching alongside the Iraqi government forces have been accused of kidnappings, forced evictions and summary executions of Sunni civilians.

“The use of Shiite militias is a big problem,” says Mutlaq. “They have burned houses, terrorized and abducted people in Diyala, Samarra and Baghdad. They have a bad reputation.” [Continue reading…]

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