A Dangerous Escalation in Iraq


MARCH 26, 2015


Tikrit, Iraq, on Thursday. Credit Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press       

The strikes are part of a campaign that from the outset has been waged without the authorization from Congress required by the Constitution. Mr. Obama is pursuing the operation at the request of Iraqi officials, who said air power was needed to break a stalemate. His reliance on two Bush-era war authorizations, for Afghanistan and Iraq, are insufficient to embroil the nation in the war against ISIS, which has been underway for eight months and could continue for years.
These strikes could further destabilize Iraq if the United States is seen to be siding with Shiite militias — which make up the bulk of the ground forces battling ISIS in Tikrit — over Iraq’s minority Sunnis. Yet in a sign of just how unpredictable the dynamics of the region are, some of the militias see the United States as the greater evil and are so angered by the airstrikes that they have already announced they are pulling out of the fight.
Until now, America has left the battle in the hands of a force of about 30,000 Iraqis led by Iran and composed mainly of Iran-backed militias; they are facing a far smaller group of ISIS jihadists. The Iraqi government and its army have been largely sidelined, having lost credibility when the army failed to stop the ISIS onslaught last year. Mr. Obama ordered the airstrikes on Wednesday after the nearly four-week-old ground offensive to retake the city had stalled.
Tikrit is a strategic crossroads in the heart of Sunni territory in central Iraq, and its liberation from ISIS control could make it easier to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which is now also under the control of the Islamic State.

The overwhelmingly Shiite ground forces battling ISIS in Sunni Tikrit have become increasingly powerful as the government army has disintegrated. The militias have a brutal record of sectarian bloodletting, including burning and bulldozing thousands of homes and other buildings in dozens of Sunni villages after American airstrikes drove ISIS out of the town of Amerli in northeastern Iraq last summer. If that happened in Tikrit, the United States would be blamed for helping to trigger yet another cycle of horrific sectarian violence.

In the fight against ISIS, the United States and Iran, bitter enemies for decades, share the goal of defeating the group. American officials insist they are not cooperating with Iran, but the two governments communicate, through the Iraqis if not directly, and their operations have often been complementary. Many of America’s Sunni allies are concerned about Iran’s growing influence in the region, including in Iraq.
The administration may hope that a victory in Tikrit will bolster the standing of Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has made some strides in restoring Baghdad’s credibility after the disastrous tenure of his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. There was also hope of ensuring that the Americans, not the Iranians, would be the dominant foreign force in any coalition that attempts at some point to retake Mosul.
Before ordering the airstrikes, Mr. Obama reportedly insisted that the Shiite militias move aside so the Iraqi Army could play a larger role, and on Thursday Iraqi special forces were reported to be advancing on Tikrit. Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, who had been advising forces around Tikrit, reportedly left the area on Sunday.
The core problem is that if ISIS is expelled from Tikrit, the Americans and Iraqis will need to bring security and ensure there is a government that respects the rights of all citizens. That should involve reaching out to leading Sunnis and assuring them that they will be central to rebuilding, securing and governing their city. It has long been apparent that no amount of American military assistance alone can save Iraq if the country’s leaders continue to marginalize the Sunnis.
Relief aid, including electricity and water, should be delivered immediately to Tikrit. The militias must be marginalized or their fighters integrated into Iraqi institutions like the army and the police so that they serve the state rather than a warlord or faction. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior leader of the Shiite world, can have an important function in making the case for a more inclusive government. So can Iran, whose fitness for rejoining the international community will be judged by its willingness to cooperate on security in the region.

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