As Iraqi government forces and Shia militias wage the largest counter-offensive yet against the ISIS-held city of Tikrit, the United States is publicly distancing itself from the attack, in a move that analysts say underscores the confusion—and tragedy—of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Launched Monday, the attack is the third Iraqi government attempt to capture Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein located northwest of Baghdad, after the city was seized by ISIS in June. Shia militias are playing a heavy role in the operation, comprising between a half and two-thirds of the up to 30,000-strong force. Iranian advisers are numbered among the ground forces near front lines, including Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s overseas unit.
The forces are reportedly moving towards the city, their pace halted by fighting and the numerous mines and bombs blocking their route. Meanwhile, residents of the Sunni-majority municipality are reportedly fleeing over fears of ethnic cleansing, atrocities, and civilian killings from the feared Shia militias and Iraqi forces, both of whom are guilty of severe human rights abuses.
Threats issued ahead of the offensive suggest residents of Tikrit have cause for concern. Addressing parliament on Monday, the U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi declared, "There is no neutrality in the battle against ISIS. If someone is being neutral with ISIS, then he is one of them." Meanwhile, Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Militia, has openly threatened revenge killings in the offensive.
"There is this whole set of Shia militias who back the government but are not particularly accountable to it and are, in many cases, more powerful than the Iraqi government fighters themselves, who famously collapsed in the face of ISIS in 2014," Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at Institute for Policy Studies, told Common Dreams. "They are doing the bulk of the fighting. The Iraqi air force is also bombing, but what they're bombing, who's being killed, we don't know yet."
The U.S., conspicuously, is not taking part in the attack. Department of Defense spokesperson Col. Steve Warren told the Wall Street Journal, "We are fully aware of the operation, but the Iraqis did not request our support for it. Our presence in Iraq is at the request of the Iraqi government. We are there to advise them, to assist them, to support them, when they ask for it."
Major media outlets are emphasizing that American non-participation exposes tensions between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Anne Barnard reports for the New York Times that "American officials, for their part, voiced unease with the prominent role of Iran and its allied Shiite militias in the Tikrit operation." Headlines like "Iraq's anti-ISIS Tikrit offensive is backed by Iran, not the U.S." have rippled through the news cycle.
Analysts told Common Dreams that the U.S. is hesitating because, simply, its policies have failed and officials are unsure of how to proceed.
Raed Jarrar, policy impact coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams, "Everyone I know is confused about this development, and I am pretty sure the U.S. administration is confused as well. It doesn't seem like the Obama administration has a comprehensive policy in Iraq that could be explained to the U.S. government, let alone the U.S. or Iraqi public."
"On the one hand, the U.S. is obviously coordinating with Iran inside Iraq and has been since 2003," Jarrar continued. "On the other hand, we have criticisms of Iran's role inside Iraq coming from the U.S. and criticisms of the U.S. role in Iraq coming from Iran."
Meanwhile, Jarrar added, "the U.S. is funding Iraqi forces that are committing massive human rights violations. There is zero interest from the Iraqi government or the U.S. to have any non-military solution or peel off support from ISIS by actually engaging people."
Some argue that this confusion, ultimately, springs from declining U.S. power in the Middle East and North Africa region.
US has little power in the Iraq, where it is being used as an air-force but plays second fiddle to the government and its Iranian allies— Vijay Prashad (@vijayprashad) March 3, 2015
Either way, Bennis emphasized, the offensive underscores the "horror" of the situation in Iraq.
"The Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that the U.S. put in place, armed, and paid for from shortly after the U.S. occupation until now has a legacy of terrible sectarianism," said Bennis. "There is a new prime minister who talks pretty good talk, but his officials, particularly the leaders of the ministries of security and defense, are the same old sectarian leaders as before. They are feared and hated by many Sunnis, not only because they lost their privileges, but they are also facing real and immediate repression in terms of mass arrests, torture in prisons, and assassinations by state officials: the police and military."
Bennis added, "This is the consequence of having a strategy of military strikes when you admit there is no military solution."