Marking another twist in a faltering offensive on Tikrit, key Shiite militias involved in the operation expressed anger that the U.S. is launching air strikes to back the operation, and according to reports, thousands of combatants are boycotting the fight on those grounds, with some threatening to attack U.S. forces.
One Iraqi security official said three major Shiite groups – the League of Righteousness, the Kateb Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, already had withdrawn their forces. The official, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive military matters, said he had been told that the militia commanders were meeting late Thursday to decide whether to remain or return to Baghdad, where many had mustered last summer in response to the Islamic State advance.
Launched over three weeks ago, the operation on the hometown of Saddam Hussein is the largest counter-offensive against ISIS yet, involving tens of thousands of Iraqi and Shiite militia fighters. This force is dominated by Shiite militias, which outnumber Iraqi troops 6 to 1 around Tikrit, according to the Washington Post.
The U.S. initially did not take part in the attack, with Iranian advisers playing a much more visible role, including Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s overseas unit.
As the offensive stalled, the U.S. began launching air strikes to back the operation late Wednesday night.
Pentagon officials have sought to publicly downplay—and even deny—de-facto U.S. collaboration with Shiite militias and Iran.
"Currently, there are no Shia militia and as reported by the Iraqis today, no PMF [Popular Mobilisation Forces] in that area as well," Central Command’s leader, Army General Lloyd Austin, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Speaking Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson Army Col. Steve Warren attempted to spin U.S. involvement in the offensive as a show of U.S. strength and power, contrasted with Iranian humiliation. "When Tikrit operations kicked off...we heard quite a bit from the Iraqis and some even from the Iranians, some fairly high-confidence statements about how rapidly the operation in Tikrit would go," he said. "Obviously they were incorrect."
However, numerous reports contradict this version of events. The Huffington Post reports that, "on Thursday afternoon, after U.S. airstrikes had pounded ISIS-held positions the night before, Shiite paramilitary forces held many of the towns, roads and military positions leading from Baghdad to Tikrit, with Shiite fighters still inside the city."
In other words, there are signs that the U.S. is still collaborating with at least some Shiite militias.
Juan Cole argued that, despite U.S. claims, the reluctance to collaborate came from Shiite militias—not the U.S. He wrote:
US air intervention on behalf of the Jerusalem Brigades of the IRGC is ironic in the extreme, since the two have been at daggers drawn for decades. Likewise, militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s “Peace Brigades” (formerly Mahdi Army) and League of the Righteous (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq) targeted US troops during Washington’s occupation of Iraq. But the fight against the so-called “Islamic State group” or Daesh has made for very strange bedfellows. Another irony is that apparently the US doesn’t mind essentially tactically allying with Iran this way– the reluctance came from the Shiite militias.
However, as the U.S. tactically allies with Iran in Iraq, in Yemen it is collaborating with Iranian rivals, including Saudi Arabia, in an anti-Houthi, large-scale invasion and bombings campaign.