Will ISIS be driven back in northern Iraq?

Eric Ruder explains the dynamics at work in the latest battle in the U.S. war on ISIS.

A Shia militia in Iraq mobilized for the war on ISISA Shia militia in Iraq mobilized for the war on ISIS

THOUSANDS OF Iraqi military troops and Shia militias are on the brink of retaking Tikrit, a northern Iraqi city once home to 300,000 people that was conquered by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last June.

If this month's offensive is successful, it will be a major symbolic and strategic victory in the U.S.-led war against ISIS. Not only would it be the first time the Iraqi government re-conquered significant territory since ISIS seized control of Falluja in January 2014 and then swept eastward across most of northern Iraq, but Tikrit also holds emotional resonance as an entirely Sunni Arab city and the former home of Saddam Hussein.

Plus, U.S. officials have already announced their next target, one much larger and even more important than Tikrit: the city of Mosul. A relatively quick victory in Tikrit--the Iraqi military's offensive officially began on March 1--would help establish a crucial waypoint in the supply line to support the next phase in the drive against ISIS.

But even if ISIS retreats from Tikrit, which lies just 80 miles north of the capital of Baghdad, any description of the operation as a "success" has to be heavily qualified. In fact, the battle itself revealed the underlying tensions that threaten to derail future military operations and possibly even the fate of Iraq as a single nation-state.

Of the 30,000 fighters backed by the Iraqi government that are now confronting ISIS in Tikrit, only about 10,000 are drawn from the ranks of the official military. The rest are operating under the command of Shia militias. Moreover, Iran--the major Shia power in the region and another point on George W. Bush's so-called "axis of evil" when the "war on terror" was launched--is providing both logistical and material support to the effort. Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, is on the ground in Tikrit.

Iran's high-profile presence has, for the moment, sidelined the direct involvement of the U.S., which carried out hundreds of air strikes in support of prior campaigns to drive ISIS out of Kurdish-dominated areas in Iraq and Syria. U.S. officials want to avoid the appearance of direct coordination with the Iranian military--that's a particularly sensitive issue given the fuss that congressional Republicans are kicking up about the threat Iran poses.

The irony is that officials overseeing the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 created the conditions for Iran's Shia regime to dramatically increase its influence in Iraq. Specifically, the U.S. decision to drive Baath Party members out of Iraq's official institutions was the first step in stoking sectarian rivalries between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Baath Party had both Sunni and Shia members, but Sunnis predominated and made up the base of Saddam Hussein's support.

Once Baathists were driven out of the military, however, it cleared the way for Shia domination of the army, and many Shia militia members joined up. In the years since, Iran's backing of Shia militia has further enhanced its influence in Iraq--and confirmed the allegiance of many of Iraq's Shia leaders.

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WHEN ISIS took over in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, on June 10 of last year, Tikrit fell one day later. Iraqi soldiers reportedly took off their uniforms and melted into the civilian population, abandoning their posts without a fight. In just a few short weeks, the billions of dollars and years spent by the Pentagon to train an Iraqi military force capable of assuming responsibility for Iraq's security evaporated.

As the Washington Post wrote last month:

With an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 armed men, the militias are rapidly eclipsing the depleted and demoralized Iraqi army, whose fighting strength has dwindled to about 48,000 troops since the government forces were routed in the northern city of Mosul last summer, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

A recent offensive against Islamic State militants in the province of Diyala led by the Badr Organization further reinforced the militias' standing as the dominant military force across a swath of territory stretching from southern Iraq to Kirkuk in the north. As they assume a greater role, the militias are sometimes resorting to tactics that risk further alienating Sunnis and sharpening the sectarian dimensions of the fight.

After Shia militias drove the last ISIS fighters from Diyala province in late January, eyewitnesses reported that the fighters took revenge on Sunnis they found in the town of Barwana, where people had fled to escape the fighting. At the conclusion of the battle, a convoy of 10 Humvees carrying dozens of armed men arrived in the town, rounded up scores of people and methodically selected and killed about 70. This was a mirror image of the horrific stories about ISIS's revenge in the cities and regions it conquered.

According to national security correspondent Eli Lake, the lines that are supposed to separate the official Iraqi military from the sectarian militias have become blurred beyond recognition:

On the front lines of Iraq's war against Islamic State, it's increasingly difficult to tell where the Iraqi army ends and the Iranian-supported Shiite militias begin. Official U.S. policy has been to support the Iraqi Security Forces as both a hammer against the Sunni jihadists and also as a way to absorb the Shiite militias that threaten to drive Iraq's Sunni minority to support anti-government terrorism.

But in an interview this week, Hadi al-Amiri, the founder and leader of Iraq's oldest and most powerful Shiite militia, the Badr Organization, told me the U.S. ambassador recently offered air strikes to support the Iraqi army and militia ground forces under his command. This has placed the U.S. in the strange position of deepening an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran for its war against Islamic extremists.

In late 2014, Amnesty International also sounded the alarm about the growing frequency of Shia militia attacks on Sunni civilians taking place under the watch of the Iraqi government, with its report "Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq." In the words of senior Amnesty International official Donatella Rivera:

By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart. Iraqi government support for militia rule must end now.

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FEARS THAT a similar massacre might follow the retaking of Tikrit have already led to a new exodus of Sunnis. But the tens of thousands of people on the move now could look like a trickle compared to what may come next.

Aid organizations are already stockpiling food and other supplies ahead of the fight for Mosul in the coming months. Some 2.2 million people have been forced to flee fighting since ISIS's offensive began in northern Iraq in January 2014. The counteroffensive to retake Mosul could create up to 1 million more refugees, according to aid groups.

Mosul is currently home to about 1.5 million people, the vast majority of them Sunni Arabs. Plus, the Sunnis of Mosul will be especially motivated to flee a takeover of the city by Shia fighting forces, according to veteran Iraq war correspondent Patrick Cockburn:

The Shia-dominated Iraqi army held Mosul for 10 years up until 2014, during which time they acted very much as a foreign occupation force widely resented by Sunnis. The ISIS victory and the Iraqi army's disintegration was widely welcomed by them...Even if Mosul did not fall to the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga or other anti-ISIS forces, an attempt to capture it would involve heavy U.S. air strikes. During the four-month siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobanê, much of the city was destroyed by U.S. bombs aimed at ISIS militants. Aside from civilian casualties, an air assault would further reduce Mosul's already limited supplies of electricity, fuel and clean water. Many people are in hospital, suffering from intestinal illnesses brought about by drinking dirty water.

The looming battle for Mosul will be a further test of the awkward alliance between Washington and Tehran--especially as the war of words over Iran heats up within the U.S. political establishment.

The debate between congressional Republicans and the Obama administration over what to do about Iran's growing influence reproduces the dilemma that has vexed the U.S. foreign policy establishment since the U.S. occupation replaced Saddam Hussein's regime with a Shia-dominated government. The U.S. has been compelled to rely on Iran in its war first against Sunni resistance fighters and now against ISIS in the hopes of bringing some measure of stability to Iraq, but at the same time, this enhances Iran's regional influence.

And while the U.S. condemns the sectarian violence of ISIS, it has thrown its support behind the equally sectarian and violent Shia militias aligned with both the Iraqi and Iranian governments. As a result, every success in the war against ISIS simultaneously helps Iran gain ground in the region at the expense of the U.S.