Joint Iraqi-Iranian Operations in Tikrit

Iraqi army and Iranian army in joint offensive to retake Tikrit.

I haven’t seen a great deal of reporting on this in the American press and I didn’t want to let it slip away without remarking on it. There is presently a major operation under way in Iraq’s Anbar province to retake the city of Tikrit from DAESH. The operation is a joint one including the Iraqi army, Shi’ite militiamen, and Iranian advisors:

The Iraqi military launched a major campaign to take back a key city from the self-proclaimed Islamic State over the weekend—a move that caught the U.S. “by surprise,” in the words of one American government official.

The U.S.-led coalition forces that have conducted seven months of airstrikes on Iraq’s behalf did not participate in the attack, defense officials told The Daily Beast, and the American military has no plans to chip in.

Instead, embedded Iranian advisers and Iranian-backed Shiite militias are taking part in the offensive on the largely Sunni town, raising the prospect that the fight to beat back ISIS could become a sectarian war.

The BBC just posted updated info:

Iraqi army soldiers and Shia militiamen are seeking to encircle Islamic State fighters in Tikrit, on the third day of a major operation to retake the city.

State-run al-Iraqiya TV said government forces were “advancing” but progress has been slowed by roadside bombs.

Security sources said they had captured villages and oil fields east of the city, and blocked a key IS supply line to neighbouring Diyala province.

The offensive is being overseen at least in part by an Iranian general.

On Tuesday, the top US general said Iran’s role in Tikrit could be positive, as long as it did not fuel sectarian tensions.

There are a number of interesting aspects of this not the least of which is mentioned in both The Daily Beast’s and the Beeb’s coverage: the potential for a sectarian war.

The second interesting aspect of this is that the U. S. military was reportedly unaware of this operation until after it was under way. You can draw whatever conclusion you care to from that.

The most on-the-nose remark I’ve heard about this campaign to date is that highly motivated fighters armed with AK-47s, hatchets, and bags of hand grenades are probably more useful in the sort of urban warfare that will be involved in Tikrit than U. S. air power.

Finally, this campaign should be highly indicative of the prospects for any upcoming campaign to retake Mosul.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I think this is very troubling. I suppose it’s possible that the militias will behave themselves but I doubt it. If they turn this into a religious civil war, I think we are going to have to leave them to it. A Sunni-Shia war is practically the definition of ‘stuff we should stay out of.’

  2. Mr. Prosser says:

    @michael reynolds: From your post to God’s browsing.

  3. @michael reynolds:

    But I thought ISIS was just a bunch of dead enders on their last legs.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    If I were cruel I’d ask you to explain that remark, since it’s essentially a non-sequitur.

    But because I’m nice, I’ll point out that the issue here is not ISIS, it is a long-simmering hate between Sunnis and Shias. ISIS has failed in its bid to achieve a Caliphate. It is in a geographical box. This changes none of that. And obviously it’s on the defensive or we wouldn’t be talking about Tikrit.

    This, rather, looks like an Iranian power play – a power play made possible by Mr. Bush’s removal of the Saddam regime. Iraq was the counterweight to Iran, and now it seems Iraq is moving toward submission to Iran.

  5. @michael reynolds:

    ISIS has failed in its bid to achieve a Caliphate. It is in a geographical box.

    So you’ve been telling us for five months now. Yet ISIS stubbornly insists on failing to disappear. Are they going to take over the Islamic world? Of course not. But they don’t have to in order to make life hell in the region for the next 20 years. I’m not sure why you keep insisting on going full Rumsfeld on this issue.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Dude. Pay attention.

    ISIS in a box is not the same as ISIS disappeared. The strategy was never “ISIS will be gone before Americans get bored.” The strategy was 1) Contain, 2) Unite the opposition, 3) Let ISIS shrink and wither over time.

    ISIS has been contained. As evidenced by their failure to hold the Mosul dam, their defeat at Kobani, the cutting of one of their central arteries between Syria and Iraq, and their failure to launch any sort of offensive.

    We are now on #2: getting the Arabs to deal with their own problems. ISIS helped by, for example, forcing Jordan into the game. The problem has always been that ISIS is Sunni and in an environment where the Sunni powers (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey) saw this as essentially a Sunni-Shia thing, they weren’t going to go all-in. You know how Republicans stupidly believe that whatever hurts liberals must be good? That same kind of stupidity is at play here. The schism is not just an Episcopalian vs. Presbyterian thing, it’s deep and emotional, and larded with mutual contempt.

    Our approach was to try and keep the sectarian thing sidelined so that the regional powers could focus on knocking off ISIS. This attack on Tikrit may be the sign that the sectarianism cannot be sidelined. But if your interpretation is that this is evidence of ISIS strength, then I’d have to say you’re way off-base. Rather, it’s a sign of ISIS weakness. If the Baghdad government was really frightened of ISIS, they would not be recklessly eschewing air power or alienating the superpower or alienating the KSA.

    No, this is a sign that the Baghdad regime and their Iranian sponsors think they can take ISIS down without our help. It’s evidence of ISIS weakness. And it’s evidence that the Shia are looking to make this a straight-up Sunni-Shia death-fest.

    It’s possible that under Iranian tutelage the Baghdad militias and “army” won’t start right in blowing up, shooting, raping and torturing Sunni in Tikrit, but I wouldn’t bet on it. What we’re more likely to get is the Shia militias leaving Sunnis in Tikrit with nowhere to turn but ISIS. At that point, ISIS is not the problem, a much larger war is the problem. Iran may be looking to squeeze the Sunni between Damascus and Baghdad, turning both Syria and Iraq into Iranian satrapies.

    On the plus side, if Sunni and Shia finally go all-in on killing each other, maybe they’ll have less time to shoot cartoonists. Then again, we could get spillover into Turkey and Europe, with S on S violence.

    And by the way, you should thank God Barack Obama was calling the shots and not the GOP, because if this sectarianism cannot be muted – and it ain’t looking good – then all we’d have accomplished is to put American fighting men and women into a sh!tstorm of epic proportions.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    the potential for a sectarian war.

    Um…isn’t that what this is already? Shia and Kurds versus Sunni?

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Well, in theory it’s the Kurds as part of Iraq, plus the KSA, Jordan, UAE and the US Air Force opposing ISIS. But that assumes that the new Shiite government in Baghdad takes a different view from the previous Shiite Baghdad regime. Despite being mostly the same people, and certainly the same party.

    We can’t want it more than they do. If the Baghdad government wants to be Iran’s b!tch and go all-in for a sectarian war and we’re all alone out there in trying to preserve an independent Iraqi state there’s not much we can do about it.

    I think we hoped Baghdad had seen the error of treating Sunnis like pinatas. This is not definitive proof that sectarianism will out, but I think it’s a bad sign. I suspect those militias are heading to Tikrit with blood and rape and plunder on their minds. Will the Iranians rein them in? Stay tuned.

  9. Electroman says:

    @C. Clavin: The Kurds are in fact Sunni themselves. They’re just not Arabs.

  10. Tyrell says:

    @michael reynolds: How about the other countries in the region ? Where do they stand and what effect could they have ? What is Turkey saying about all of this ? Pakistan ? Egypt ? What if Iran fails ? Is it conceivable that ISIS would have thoughts of going in there ? Will Israel stay out ? What do you make of them freeing all of those Christians ? Does that indicate a change in their strategy ?
    What are some good sources of information on this ? You seem to have a good handle on how things could play out involving the various players. I have been getting some of my information from “You Tube” and from various authors (Kissinger,Petraus, McCrystal). It is hard to find up to date books on this.

  11. @Electroman:

    Most Kurds are Sunni, but there is a sizable minority of Shia Kurds as well as smaller minorities of various other religions.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    My sources are all pretty basic. I read Al Jazeerah, Al Arabiyeh, the BBC, the Guardian, occasionally other British papers, the Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz – when I can get around their paywall. And the usual suspects – WaPo, NYT, Foreign Policy magazine. And history, obviously, for backstory.

    But this is three-dimensional chess. There is no conceivable way to square the circle and defeat everyone we don’t like because, basically, we don’t like any of these people. Assad’s a piece of sh!t, so is Khamenei, so is Al-Baghdadi and ISIS, so are the governments of all the other countries, including our allies. The best government in the region is Israel’s, and they’re basically a South African style apartheid regime. Second best is Turkey, and they are apparently determined to see if they can’t sink to the local level.

    Honestly, if you paved over everything from the eastern border of Tunisia to Kashmir, the worldwide rate of torture, murder, mutilation, rape, terrorism and general aszholery would drop like a rock. It would be immoral, wrong, and so on, but honest to God the inability of the middle east to get it’s act together is a pain in everyone’s ass. Kind of how Europe must have looked to the rest of the world in the middle ages. And Renaissance. And of course the first half of the 20th century.

    It’s good to remember that, and Obama is right to remind people, because as impatient as we are with the middle east, it was just 70 years ago that one of the most advanced nations in the West was shipping trains full of Jews and others to be gassed, and we ourselves were incinerating cities full of Japanese women and children. Whatever’s gone on in the ME, they’ve yet to approach the levels of horror good Christians were causing within living memory.

    We’ve had a century of the West trying to impose its nation-state model on people who just won’t wear it. They can’t manage to find a way to invest a national government with legitimacy. It’s like there’s no space between anarchy and tyranny. And we in the West don’t really have a way to deal with governments that aren’t really governments but tribal elders or warlords or thugs. We’ve been trying to get everything lined up and organized and stable so we can get on with pumping out all their oil and leaving them with nothing.

    In any case, I often feel that we in the West are just an interlude for the ME, just a temporary interruption, and that what they really want to do is get on with killing each each other over resources and religion. I wonder how Christendom would have reacted if, say, the Persian Safavids had shown up in the middle of the Thirty Years War and tried to get stuff organized. I imagine we’d have waited impatiently until they went away so we could get back to slaughtering each other over such vital issues as the exact nature of the eucharist.

    It’s frustrating. Whatever you think of Obama and Kerry, they’re working hard for their paychecks.

    TL;DR: Damned if I know what to do with crazy bastrds.

  13. Barry says:

    Doug: ‘… the potential for a sectarian war.’

    Doug, perhaps you should start with reading papers from 2004, and work your way up to the present. There’s been a massive sectarian war in Iraq for a decade now.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Barry: And if Dave does go back and read papers from ’03 and ’04 he should notice that there were a fair number of pundits who pointed out at the time that our invasion of Iraq would likely result in majority Shi’ite Iraq closely aligned with Shi’ite Iran. A reality that Obama now has to deal with.

  15. Liberal With Attitude says:

    Just dropping back into this thread to note that there is a sizable number of GOP figures who are still…still, after all this- burning with a desire to start a ground war with Iran.