The Iraqi army along with Shi’a militia and in conjunction with Coalition air support liberated the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS). Heralded as a major blow to IS and a morale booster for the Iraqi army (IA). As with all military actions, we need to analyze this for second and third tier effects. Then we need to determine follow-on efforts.
To put this all into perspective, this was the second attempt by the Iraqi government to dislodge IS form Tikrit, the first ending in defeat for the IA. In this last iteration, Baghdad assembled a composite force of regular army and Shi’a militias, mostly backed by Iran, that by estimates numbered between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters. The IS force inside of Tikrit was estimated to be between 200 and 1000 fighters.
Tikrit was recaptured after a month long campaign that at many times bogged down in the complex world of urban warfare. The introduction of Coalition airstrikes and attrition finally won the day for Iraq. As of this writing the Iraqi forces are still mopping up the IS resistance.
The reality of all this is that while coalition air power played a strong role in the final push to end IS hold on Tikrit the majority of the forces on the government side were Shi’ite militia controlled by Iran and supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisors and likely combat troops. These forces hold no loyalty to Baghdad and do not fight in the cause of Iraq. On the front page of the Wall Street Journal for April 2d is a picture of what is said to be a member of the Iraqi forces beating an insurgent. There is no way to tell if this is indeed a member of IS, it should be noted that the flag shown in the photo is that of one of the militias, not the Iraqi flag.
Since the beginning of the operation, there have been repeated reports of human rights abuses on Sunni residents, which are being investigated by Amnesty International according to a recent report by AFP. “We are investigating reports that scores of residents have been seized early last month and not heard of since, and that residents’ homes and businesses have been blown up or burned down after having been looted by militias,” said Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty.
“There have also been reports of summary executions of men who may or may not have been involved in combat but who were killed after having been captured,” she said.
Additional reports indicate wide scale looting by the Shi’a militias. A recent AP report states Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the Army to arrest and prosecute anyone found looting abandoned properties. However two-thirds of Baghdad’s presence in Tikrit are the Shi’a militia. While Shi’a religious leaders call for restraint, it is unclear how much influence they will have over the Iranian backed fighters. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, called on security forces and the militias to “preserve and guard citizens’ properties in areas that have been liberated.” The question now is how these actions will affect the continued fight against IS and what this means in the coming fight for Mosul.
We must understand that while the Iraqi government can pretend that the fight in Tikrit was a government fight to liberate part of the country from an invader, it is in fact a Shia-Sunni fight/civil war. IS is predominantly a Sunni organization built on the foundation of their interpretation of Sunni Islam. Iran’s militias follow the teachings of the Shi’a sect. Now we have a little reported third aspect. Baathist military leaders, from Saddam Hussain’s old party, seem to be in charge of much of the military and security portion of the IS. Putting this altogether we have Sunni’s killing Shi’a and Shi’a killing Sunni and political puppet masters pulling strings.
This combined Shi’a government/Shi’a militia force must now move north through the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh before attempting to launch an attack on Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Based on the disenfranchisement of the Sunni in the past several years and the current Shi’a violence against the Sunni population this does not look like an easy prospect. Sunni tribes with the assistance and insistence of the IS will resist and degrade the force as it moves north. Should it become apparent that the bulk of fighters resisting are Iraqi Sunni tribes the Coalition Air Forces will be reluctant to engage. If this force reaches Mosul it will be far from its supply base, in hostile territory and fighting a well-trained force that likely now will outnumber the Iraqi’s.
Once near Mosul there is of course another force that has shown itself capable of standing up to IS and defeating them, the Peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The Peshmerga, designated a regional security force in the Iraq Constitution, are well trained, highly motivated but only moderately armed. Like the IA they were pushed back by the initial IS attacks. Unlike the IA however then regrouped and fought back, regaining what they had lost and helped retrieve some territory not part of the KRG. The Kurds are a secular group and the Peshmerga contain units that are Sunni, Shi’a, Christian and Yezidi. Like the Sunni however, they have been ill-treated and it is not likely they will consent to join in the fight for Mosul without major concession from Baghdad.
After this review of the situation, it is time to look toward to the next step. It is unlikely that the Iraqi force will be able to carry the fight through the Sunni region and mount a successful campaign against Mosul without major support from an outside entity. It is unfortunate that all of the good works the US and the Coalition did to build trust with the Sunni’s after Desert Storm was reversed by the policies of recent Iraqi governments. Shi’a militia activity, as well as actions by government forces to punish the Sunni population, makes it even more unlikely that the Sunni’s will return to support Baghdad anytime soon.
Outside support of the kind needed in a direct fight for Mosul will not come from the US or any Coalition partner. If any support comes, it will come from Iran directly. Even the Iranian supported militias would not be able to shift the balance enough to win the day. Options are therefore limited. Live with the status quo, let Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jorden and others take the fight to IS in Syria and elsewhere. Let Iraq split amongst its ethnic groups in which case it is likely the Sunni tribes would engage IS on their own or with the help of Sunni governments. Alternatively, in the end hope for some type of diplomatic solution. I mention this last only because I know there are readers who think there is a diplomatic solution to every problem.