Iraqi forces have swept into Tikrit and appear poised to push the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Saddam Hussein’s old hometown. Reportedly, the Iraqi forces have retaken nearly all of the city, though ISIS is still resisting in some areas.
By “Iraqi forces,” I mean government troops, a small number of Sunni tribesman, and (above all) Shiite militias directed by Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, and bolstered by Iranian fighters. It is estimated that Shiite militias under the control of Iran constitute about two-thirds of the force that is retaking Tikrit.
Absent from Tikrit is any U.S. presence. There are no “boots on the ground,” and U.S. warplanes aren’t participating. This appears to be the decision of the Iraqi government, which wanted the operation to be an Iraq-Iran venture with no U.S. involvement.
The defeat of ISIS anywhere, by virtually anyone, is a good thing. But its defeat by forces directed by Iran raises plenty of concerns.
One concern is a bloodbath. As the Washington Post reminds us, Tikrit was the site of a massacre of as many as 1,700 Shiite soldiers by Islamic State militants in late spring. Shiite commanders have portrayed the current offensive as revenge for the slaughter, in which some local Sunni tribes also participated. Once the Shiite militias gain control, there might well be a bloodbath of Sunnis.
Of broader concern is the influence Iran will yield in Iraq as a result of leading the charge against ISIS. The Obama administration doesn’t seem particularly concerned about this prospect, but as Max Boot explains, Iran’s expanded influence threatens U.S. interests and the region as a whole in at least two ways:
First, the obvious reason–Iran believes that the U.S. is the Great Satan and it is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, with a track record going back to 1979 of mounting terrorist attacks on American targets. So its success in expanding its influence into countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen is a defeat for the U.S.
Second, Iran is anathema to the region’s Sunnis. The more successful that Iran appears to be, the more that Sunnis will flock for protection to ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and other Sunnis terrorist groups.
In this way, the benefit of ISIS’s defeat in places like Tikrit could be offset by the benefit to ISIS elsewhere.
A third problem pertains to the Persian Gulf states that we have enlisted in the fight against ISIS. We do these states, which had the courage to cast their lot with us, a disservice by enabling their arch-enemy in Tehran to displace us at the forefront of the fight against ISIS. According to a senior U.S. official quoted in the Washington Post, our Persian Gulf allies are deeply concerned over this. Through our fecklessness, we risk shrinking our influence in the region even further.
As Boot concludes, “a victory over the terrorists of ISIS in Iraq, even if it is forthcoming, will be hollow indeed if it becomes a victory for the terrorists of Iran.”