U.S. air power finally being used in the battle for Tikrit

Not long ago, it appeared that Shiite militias controlled by Iraq, with some assistance from the Iraqi army and Sunni tribesmen, would expel ISIS from Tikrit. The attacking forces, by all accounts, had significant numerical superiority over the ISIS defenders, and at one point reportedly had captured most of the town. After completing the job in Tikrit, it would be on the Mosul — a more difficult operation.

The U.S. was on the sidelines. The Shiites didn’t want us to be involved; the battle of Tikrit was to be the Iranian-dominated militias’ victory, not a victory shared with America. Nor did the U.S. seem eager to participate. Doing so would make our negotiating partner in Tehran unhappy while also disappointing our Sunni anti-ISIS coalition partners (notably Saudi Arabia), who would hardly relish U.S. cooperation with Iranian dominated militias.

But Tikrit hasn’t fallen. ISIS, though outnumbered, has held its own. It is not a paper tiger.

So now, the U.S. will join the battle. The Washington Post reports:

U.S. warplanes began striking Islamic State forces in and around the Iraqi city of Tikrit on Wednesday, drawing the United States directly into a battle that has pitted the militants against Iraqi forces dominated by Iranian-backed militias.

Pentagon officials said that the Iraqi government had requested the assistance as the fight for Tikrit stalled as it moved into its fourth week. They said initial targeting for the strikes will be aided by U.S.-led coalition surveillance aircraft that recently began flying over the city, 110 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Does this mean that the U.S. will be coordinating with the Iranian-dominated Shiite militias? The U.S. says no:

Lt. Col. Brian Fickel, a spokesman for Gen. Lloyd Austin III, head of the U.S. Central Command, said Iraqi security forces were in command of the Tikrit operation and that the United States and its allies were coordinating with those forces, not ­Iranian-backed paramilitaries.

However, it’s not easy to square this claim with consistent reports that the Shiite militias run the show. According to the Post, U.S. officials have estimated that these Shiite fighters outnumber official Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribal forces by about 5 to 1. Even an Iraqi military commander in the area concedes that “the operation [in Tikrit] was started by the popular mobilizations and has [been] continued by them — they have better weapons and ammunition than us; they have more support.”

The Obama administration is said to have conditioned our involvement on a diminished role for the militias and a larger one for government forces. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, reportedly has left the area.

Maybe so. But the boots on the ground still are worn, to an overwhelming degree, by Shiite militiamen. Obama’s “conditions” seem like fig leafs.

Given this, is our decision to join the fight a good one? Compared to the alternative, the answer is probably yes.

If we remain on the sidelines, it becomes more likely that ISIS will maintain control over Tikrit. That’s a very unfavorable outcome. ISIS needs to be defeated. It seems absurd that, having committed to taking on ISIS with a focus on taking it on in Iraq, the U.S. would stand by and watch ISIS prevail in the most important current battle in Iraq.

It’s possible that the Shiite forces might eventually take Tikrit even if we don’t help them win. This too is a very bad outcome because it would bolster the prestige and influence of Iran at America’s expense. Haven’t we been marginalized enough without the added spectacle of Iranian backed foreces liberating an important Iraqi town while we limit ourselves to sideshow bombing missions in other parts of Iraq, far from the real action?

A more favorable outcome would be for the U.S. to be the force that turns the tide in Tikrit and helps inflict a major defeat on ISIS. Our participation may not bring this outcome about, but we can’t be the difference maker if we don’t participate.

To be sure, huge questions remain about what would happen after the Iranian-backed Shiite forces, with out help, retake Tikrit. We shouldn’t assume that, because we lent a decisive hand, we will be able to influence the aftermath. Perhaps we should assume the worst.

But the alternatives seem worse still.

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