When we say “Iraq,” what we mean is Iran. Tikrit, a Sunni stronghold best known as the home town and power base of Saddam Hussein, has been held by ISIS since June of last year, but the town has been under siege for days, and almost 30,000 Sunnis have fled in advance of the encirclement. Today the Iraqi government announced that the final push is about to take place to liberate Tikrit, despite the loss of a strategic bridge:
Joint Iraqi forces have started what they believe will be the conclusive push to retake the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS, a paramilitary force participating in the offensive said Tuesday.
The forces have started “the decisive operation” to liberate Tikrit just over a week after the overall operation began, advancing toward the city from several directions, according to a statement from the predominantly Shiite paramilitary force Hashd Al-Shaab.
ISIS wasn’t making it easy, however. The Sunni extremist group blew up a key bridge near Tikrit, preventing the joint Iraqi forces from using it to cross the Tigris River to approach the city from the east.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Iraqi forces on March 1 to retake Tikrit and Salahuddin province. Tikrit, best known to Westerners as the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, fell in June to ISIS, which has captured parts of Iraq and Syria for what it says is its Islamic caliphate.
Well, it’s not just Iraqi forces fighting to wrest control of Tikrit out of ISIS’ hands. A significant portion of the forces besieging Tikrit are Shi’ite fighters backed by Iran, coming to the aid of the majority Shi’a in Iraq, a move which will underscore the sectarian divisions in the country:
The US and its coalition partners are pointedly not participating in the Tikrit operation:
With Iraq’s military in disarray, the best fighting force the country’s leaders could muster for the battle is a patched-together, rag-tag army of Iraqi government soldiers, local Sunni tribesmen and Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias.
American-led airstrikes have been critically important in other battles against ISIS — but there’s no U.S. involvement in Tikrit.
Instead, Iraq has turned to neighboring Iran for help. Iranian officers are on the ground, reportedly commanding the Shiite militias, and that’s sparked fears in the U.S. of rising Iranian influence in Iraq.
This is precisely why the Sunni nations in the region teamed up to fight ISIS. They knew the Iranians would use the fight to expand its influence in Iraq, and that the collapse of the state would allow Iran to treat the rump Shi’a territory in Iraq as a vassal state. A Shi’ite conquest in Sunni territory will make it more difficult to get tribal leaders to throw in against ISIS, even if ISIS is on the retreat. It will also make it more likely that the Kurds will seek their own state rather than act as a perpetual referee between the two Arab sects.
The Kurds are also trying to make that case on the ground, too. Over the last couple of days, they have pushed back against ISIS positions near Kirkuk, surprising the Islamist marauders that threaten to push Kurds out of the key city. It’s a big reversal for ISIS, which had threatened the Kurdish capital of Erbil only a few weeks ago:
Reuters also has some raw footage of a suicide bomber getting blown up by Kurdish forces well before he could reach the front lines:
If the Kurds hold Kirkuk and then take Mosul, don’t expect them to give them back — especially not to an Iraqi government that has become a subsidiary to Tehran.
Update: The Kurds are in control of Kirkuk already; they are going on offense against ISIS outside the city after weeks on defense, not attempting to retake it. I’ve fixed that above.