Tikrit a key test of U.S., Iraq efforts to drive out extremists

The battle for Tikrit has produced an important turnabout in the Iraqi campaign against extremists: Iranian-backed Shiite militias appear to have stalled there after three weeks of intense fighting, leading Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to request U.S. airstrikes to complete the mission.

The Tikrit campaign appears to be the first significant overreach in Iraq by the Iranians and their field commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. As in other campaigns, the Shiite militias under his leadership fought hard but without the intelligence or precision weapons available to U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. As a result, the Shiite militias are said to have suffered heavy casualties.

The stalled offensive led to unusual criticism from Iraq’s Shiite clerical leaders. One sheikh in Karbala called for more unity among Iraqi forces; according to The New York Times, he also criticized the militias for carrying Shiite sectarian banners that would alienate the Sunni residents of Tikrit. A senior U.S. official said Abadi’s move away from the Iranian-backed militias toward the U.S.-backed Iraqi army was endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the paramount Shiite leader in Iraq. As in the early days of the war, U.S. commanders insisted that such support would be conditional on changes in the structure of Iraq’s forces so that they had a less Iran-leaning, sectarian character. The U.S. demand seems to have been successful.

The Iranians had pushed Abadi to make a “binary” choice between Tehran and Washington, U.S. officials contend. “That didn’t work out in Tikrit,” a U.S. official said. “Iraqi leadership has chosen the U.S. and the coalition. They will still acknowledge the presence of Iran, but will not permit Iran and [Shiite militia leader] Hadi al-Amiri to make the choices about operational and strategic relationships for Iraq.”

U.S. leverage in the Iraq campaign stems from the ability of its “smart” weapons to deliver firepower with much greater accuracy and impact than can the Iranians, who depend on “indirect” bombardment by artillery and rockets. Although the United States officially doesn’t have special operations spotters embedded in forward positions with Iraqi forces, some of its European allies do. And some U.S. Delta Force teams are said to have been operating with great effect on the ground, though in a clandestine role.

The U.S. is also able to use drones and other overhead systems to deliver Hellfire missiles on Tikrit and other targets that strike Islamic State positions with great accuracy.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stressed the impact of U.S. airpower in a statement Wednesday: “These strikes were designed to destroy [Islamic State] strongholds with precision — protecting innocent Iraqis by minimizing damage to infrastructure, and enabling Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to continue offensive operations against [the Islamic State] in the vicinity of Tikrit.” She argued that with 1,678 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq so far, the group’s momentum has been “blunted,” its “forces degraded” and many “leadership cells eliminated.” The extremists have lost the ability to move in about 25 percent of the territory they had controlled, she said.

Tikrit is important because it’s the first big test of whether — and how — a Sunni enclave can be recovered from the Islamic State forces that swept in last summer. If Iraqis realize that this can be accomplished only by the Iraqi military, working with the U.S.-led coalition, there’s hope for stitching the country back together as the extremists are chased out. A key element of this strategy will be Sunni police forces, who can hold Tikrit and other Sunni towns and re-establish order after the extremists have been cleared.

The senior U.S. official also said that commanders have agreed with Abadi that the next major attack should be west into Anbar Province, rather than north to Mosul. This will allow the U.S.-led coalition to operate partly from Jordan, which borders Anbar on the west, and partly from al-Asad air base, where the United States is amassing substantial firepower.

It would provide two stable platforms, similar to what Kurdistan has offered in the northeast. And because Anbar is overwhelmingly Sunni, it will be harder for Soleimani and the Shiite militias to play a meddling role there.

The setback for Soleimani and his proxies is significant because it comes as Iranian and U.S. negotiators are working to complete an agreement that would place sharp limits on the Iranian nuclear program for the next decade or so. Arabs had worried about this deal partly because they saw Soleimani’s proxy forces on a roll in Iraq and across the region. But Tikrit illustrates that, whatever their prowess, the Iranians aren’t 10 feet tall.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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