Why does the following sentence hold so much significance? Iraqi forces, backed by thousands of Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribesmen and supervised by the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, launched an attacked to retake the Islamic State (IS) held town of Tikrit, without the assistance of Coalition forces.
This sentences pretty much sums up Iraq’s past, present and most likely its future failings. Just who are the ‘official’ government forces and why after a decade of rebuilding, extensive training and supplied with vast amounts of weaponry, do they need to be significantly augmented by Iranian backed Shiite militia or indeed led by an al-Quds Force commander?
Any sense of a united force is lacking in Iraq and having wasted the chance for several years to build a cross-sectarian and multi-ethnic armed force, the scene is dominated by one of a number of different forces depending on where you are in Iraq.
Whilst hundreds of Sunni tribesman have played a role in the Tikrit offensive, currently it is more of symbolic than of real strategic value. There are plenty of Sunni tribes that are anti-IS and support Baghdad’s efforts but by large the Sunni position from the pre IS days has not been drastically addressed.
Sunnis continue to view the Baghdad political chambers and its Shia dominated security apparatus with distrust and resentment. It is easy to forget that IS strolled into town amidst widespread Sunni protests and continued clashes in the traditionally problematic Anbar province.
As the combined Iraq force slowly makes progress around Tikrit, there is a growing danger of a wider sectarian divide. Crucially, the liberators must be separated from the eventual protectors. If the Sunnis do not lead the protection and control of their heartland then this is a recipe for disaster.
Iranian backed militias on the Sunni doorstep simply echoes the sentiments that led to the Sunni welcome from some sections as the IS blitzed in to town.
In fact, the Iraqi Sunni tribal and various Baathist forces became so blended with the IS ‘label’ that it is often misleading when attacks merely become tagged as against IS. There is a danger that sectarian atrocities could be committed under the banner of banishing the evil of IS.
The Sahwa or Sunni Awakening Councils that drove al-Qaeda out of the Sunni hotspots is an example that Sunnis can be enticed into the fold – but the success of the Sahwa initiative was greatly diluted as the Sunni tribal forces were not sufficiently embedded within the national security apparatus and the opportunity to lure the Sunnis into a greater political role was lost by Baghdad.
Even as the Coalition plays no part in a key offensive against IS in Iraq, the US has somewhat tried to brush off the Iranian influence in the battle for Tikrit but this fact is not lost on weary regional powers. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal pointed to the offensive in Tikrit as the prime example of the anxiety of Gulf States of Iran “taking over” Iraqi forces.
With the U.S. in deep negotiations with Tehran over the curbing of its nuclear program and concern amongst regional powers that US is softening its stance on Iran, hardly soothes this regional anxiety.
In the words of US General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the hodge-podge of Iraqi Humvees and various vehicles who darted towards Tikrit like “rush hour on the Washington Beltway”, will ultimately overcome IS forces in Tikrit due to their “overwhelming numbers.”
The US is naturally worried that their enormous investment in eradicating IS will be hijacked by Iran as it increasingly displays its influence and plays a leading role by training militia and providing general arms and increasingly sophisticated weaponry.
Of course, Iraqi forces in spite of any backing from Iran would not be anywhere near Tikrit if it was not for the significant coalition airstrikes.
The greater concern for Iraq is whether the common threat of IS, where battles rage from Kurdistan to the north, Anbar to the West or to the gates of Baghdad further south, will be bring the county closer together or even wider apart?
Unfortunately, augmented by the growing political rifts with Kurdistan, all the signs currently point to the latter. As U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pointed out “We’ve been down the road of sectarianism in Iraq and it’s important that the government of Iraq not go down that road again.”
When you have a significant Shiite militia backed by Iran that is perhaps more powerful than the official state forces leading the road to Tikrit, it’s hard not to see that in spite of Carter’s warnings, Iraq is going down that road again and fast.
Tikrit is the all-important dress rehearsal for Mosul. If Iraqi forces get bogged into a protracted battle with IS or worse the situation turns into sectarian anarchy, then the battle for Mosul will no longer be Iraq versus IS but Shiite versus Sunni.
First Published: Daily Sabah
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc