As lines of Iraqi Humvees and trucks jammed the roads to Tikrit with thousands of Iraqi forces looking well-motivated and itching for battle, on the surface this would point to all the positive signs – Iraq was finally ready to banish the Islamic State (IS) from their doorstep.
However, as Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, pointed out, eventual recapture of Tikrit is not the burning question. The key issue is the security and political apparatus that is left behind to support Tikrit and other Sunni towns that are retaken.
Whilst Sunni tribal forces play a role in the battle for Tikrit, it is the unmissable presence of thousands of Shiite militia supervised by commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani that speaks volumes.
Kurdistan leaders have repeated warned that without the support of local Sunni tribesman in Tikrit and particularly Mosul, any military offensive will ultimately not have the desired long-term goals.
Masrour Barzani, Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, reiterated warnings this week that “Without the Iraqi army and, more specifically, Sunni elements within these forces, it will not produce the results that we all hope for.” Barzani also lamented the lack of supplies of heavy weaponry to the Peshmerga forces even as Kurds play leading role against IS.
The Tikrit offensive was underscored by a lack of Coalition involvement. It also comes amidst signs of cracks with the coalition over strategy. Where the U.S. openly lauded a looming spring offensive to retake Mosul, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi quickly reminded that Baghdad would determine the timing for any Mosul offensive.
It was Iran pulling the strings in Tikrit and whilst U.S. officials have played this down for now, this has hardly soothed regional anxiety.
“As the Iraqi army stands up more and more, militias and external actors are going to be less and less imperative and needed,” US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to reassure its coalition partners. But for Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Tikrit was example of the Iranian “take over” that they are worried about.
Iraq has been engulfed in sectarian storms since 2003. On paper it built a considerable state force with years of training and US military aid, yet without support from Shiite militias, attacks such as that on Tikrit are simply not possible.
Sunni Sahwa or Awakening Councils that were crucial to previously driving out al-Qaeda have shown that Sunni tribal leaders can be enticed. But many of their demands, such as embedding Sahwa forces into the official security apparatus and greater control of their affairs were not met and increasing sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fanned more Sunni discontent which eventually led to the welcoming of IS in various Sunni circles.
If greater local Sunni support can be attained in Tikrit and Mosul, IS can be much more readily defeated.
Of greater importance is the shape of Tikrit and Mosul that is left behind, if Sunnis can take control of their own security and see humanitarian assistance and reconstruction from Baghdad then stability can be achieved.
If Shiite militias or any semblance of Iranian marks are left behind on these cities or if Baghdad wastes yet another opportunity to entice the Sunnis with greater political and security representation, then a sense of déjà vu cannot be avoided.
One of the conditions for the eventual support against IS was that the new Iraqi premier, Haider al-Abadi, could achieve the elusive U.S. hope of a plural and stable Iraq with cross sectarian and ethnic representation.
In Iraq, there remains as always more questions than answers.
First Published: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc