When President Obama decided to employ U.S. air power to support the effort to dislodge ISIS from Tikrit, he pushed for the Iranian-dominated Shiite militias to leave the battlefield. He did so even though these forces made up more than 80 percent of the attacking force.
The Shiite militiamen didn’t need to be asked twice. According to the Washington Post, they have refused to continue fighting. One militia threatens to shoot down coalition planes in the area on the pretext that we are airlifting supplies to ISIS.
So now the force that remains in the fight consists of an estimated 4,000 regular Iraqi troops and some Sunni tribsmen. To succeed in taking Tikrit, they must do the job that more than 30,000 troops couldn’t.
The use of U.S. air power and intelligence should help, but will it compensate for such a significant decline in manpower? And will the remaining troops even be willing to continue what has been a very difficult fight?
There’s plenty of room for serious doubt on both scores. Yet Obama’s policy on Tikrit seems to be predicated on the view that U.S. air power plus a small Iraqi force will prevail.
I’m not certain we should take at face value the Shiite militias’ assertion that they have pulled back due to U.S. involvement. These militias were taking a serious beating. According to Max Boot, there are reports that they have lost 6,000 men in the fighting and were already pulling back.
Most of the Shiite militias remain in the area (the only one that reportedly has left is that of Moqtada al-Sadr — remember him? — which had just arrived and hadn’t fought). It may be that the Shiites plan to let the U.S. soften up the battlefield and then, if the outlook seems improved, rush in and, if successful, claim victory.
But this brings us back to the question of whether our bombing campaign and a fighting force of maybe 4,000 will significantly weaken ISIS in Tikrit. A reader, formerly with the State Department, tells me that in the Second Battle of Fallujah, U.S.-U.K. forces numbering around 13,000 troops needed almost two months to root out 3,000 al Qaeda forces. Iraqi forces were also present but mostly just observed, according to the reader.
In Tikrit, ISIS is once again demonstrating what a tough, highly-motivated fighting force it is. When it wants to advance, ISIS can sometimes be halted by tough, highly-motivated fighters like the Kurds plus U.S. air power.
But when it comes to pushing ISIS out of towns and cities they are determined to hold, it may be that only U.S. led ground forces are up to the task. Conceivably, large numbers of Iranian-dominated forces might accomplish this. As for regular Iraqi forces and Sunni tribesmen, one fears this may be mission impossible.
If there is any basis for optimism, it lies in the fact that Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has called for unity among the armed factions fighting ISIS. Sistani said:
Differing points of view lead to negative results in the military position. I don’t distinguish the public mobilizations [militias] from the [government] security forces. The public mobilization is a part of the security forces.
However, after he visited forces arrayed outside of Tikrit, Sistani admitted that there are “differences” over the status of the international coalition. This sounds like an understatement. As influential as Sistani is, the differences may be too vast for him to bridge.