The US is sitting out Iraq's big battle in Tikrit — but Iran isn't

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Marco Werman: There is a major military operation underway in Iraq to take back the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, now in the hands of ISIS. And the US is sitting this one out; it’s the Iraqi army and the Iranians who are leading this fight. I asked Aymenn al-Tamimi to help explain why that is. He’s a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.


Aymenn al-Tamimi: If I were a policymaker in the US government, it’s a very, very difficult situation indeed. On the one hand, if you scale back aid or military support even conditionally, it creates a bigger vacuum for Iran to fill, and I think this Tikrit operation is a case in point. There’s no air support coming, so the Iranian involvement is greater than ever in terms of operational support, logistics on the ground, and so on. But then on the other hand, there are valid concerns that engaging in airstrikes, providing weapons is going to end up in the hands of Iranian proxy groups that have greatly built up influence.


Werman: We’re also hearing reports that Iraqi officials are upset that Iran is more engaged than the US in this fight for Tikrit, and if they had US support in taking Tikrit the fight would be over by now. Practically, how much does Iraq need the US right now?


Al-tamimi: On this question of if the US fought in this particular operation, I don’t think it would make all that much of a difference. It might speed up things a little, but the biggest problem is on the ground in that undetonated IS IEDs are planted all over the roads and buildings in Tikrit, that’s something to be disarmed on the ground, a US airstrike can’t exactly take care of that.


Werman: One of the challenges the Iraqi government has been facing is how to win back the Sunni tribes who have made alliances with ISIS. Is there any sign that you know of that they’re getting them back on their side?


Al-tamimi: To a certain extent, that has already happened. There are already Sunni forces working with the Iraqi government, but now in Tikrit and also in other places, for example in Haditha in the Anbar province. Although it’s common to point to IS or sometimes buy into the IS narrative that it’s protected Sunnis, in reality there have been abused by IS against locals in Tikrit since its takeover of the city in the summer of 2014 and I think sometimes that gets overlooked.


Werman: Tikrit is about halfway up the highway north out of Baghdad to Mosul--Mosul obviously also held by ISIS. Why the battle for Tikrit right now?


Al-tamimi: There is this conception that the battle of Tikrit is a practice so to speak, or practice ground, for the operation to take Mosul. Incidentally, if you were to ask me what my bets were on how this operation is going to go, I think it’s going to go in the government’s favor. On the other hand, one has to be very careful about this because the circumstances of Mosul and Tikrit are quite different. Mosul is a much, much larger city and more significantly Mosul is not a ghost town, it still has a large local population residing in the city, difficult for them to get out, whereas Tikrit really became depopulated a long time ago.


Werman: What is your big worry right now with this whole dynamic--Iraqi army, shia militia from Iran, the US on the sidelines?


Al-tamimi: We talked about the US policy role--I know concerns have been expressed that the US is at risk of losing Iraq to Iran, but my view actually is that the US already lost Iraq to Iran a while ago. The circumstances the US is in in terms of policy debate about what can and can’t be done with regards to this means that I think Iran always has the advantage in this regard of being Iraq’s neighbor, being more willing to supply military aid readily, being willing to help cultivate forces on the ground even if they are proxy militias, which in my view, in the long run create problems not just in terms of the sectarian dynamic but I think this overlooked in the debate, the question that militarization simply leads to more ample opportunity for lawlessness in the long run.


Werman: You sounded fairly confident earlier that ISIS could be defeated. It sounds like you’re concerned about the unpredictable stuff down the road.


Al-tamimi: Exactly. I think this is what we have to bear in mind and I think sometimes people, when it comes to the militia phenomenon, focus a bit too much on the sectarian issue rather than the more general problems that militarization creates.


Werman: Aymenn al-Tamimi, fellow at the Middle East Forum. Thank you very much.


Al-tamimi: Thank you.