TIME Yemen

Why the U.S. Is Fighting Beside Iran in Iraq and Against It in Yemen

An armed member of Houthi militia (R) keeps watch as people gather beside vehicles which were allegedly destroyed by a Saudi air strike, in Sana'a, Yemen on March 26, 2015.
Yahya Arhab—EPA An armed member of Houthi militia keeps watch as people gather beside vehicles which were allegedly destroyed by a Saudi air strike, in Sanaa, Yemen on March 26, 2015.

Tehran and Washington share an interest in re-establishing state authority in Iraq, but in Yemen their agendas diverge

Just to set the scene: In Iraq on Wednesday, U.S. warplanes began providing air cover to Iranian-backed militias in Tikrit, in a joint effort against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) coordinated through the Iraqi government. On the same day, 1,200 miles to the south in Yemen, the U.S. was providing guidance to Saudi pilots bombing Shia insurgents who are supported by Iran. So the U.S. was bombing Iran’s enemies in one country, and helping to bomb Iran’s allies in another.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, American and Iranian diplomats were resuming their intense talks about how to contain Tehran’s nuclear program. Both sides insisted the negotiations were confined to matters atomic, nothing else. And that’s a good thing, because the ever-complex Middle East has never looked more so than it does at this moment.

And yet, in an important way, Wednesday’s events are wonderfully clarifying. March 26, 2015 may go down in history as the day that Arab states came out into the open to fight, putting their names and ordnance into a conflict that had been carried out by shadowy armed groups the governments quietly equipped, sheltered and cosseted, previously preserving a deniability that only muddied the situation even further.

Saudi Arabia declared it sent 100 warplanes to strike targets inside Yemen, and now has 150,000 troops standing by at the border. The intervention was backed by nine other nations, and the announced “logistical and intelligence” support of Washington, where the Saudis chose to convene the news conference revealing the campaign. The governments lined up behind the Saudis were all fellow Sunni governments—Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait, several providing planes of their own. Egypt, according to a fresh report, is also preparing to send troops. The only holdout from the Gulf was Oman, which prides itself on maintaining the trust of Iran: the sultan of Oman played the role of mediator when U.S. and Iranian diplomats secretly met there to talk about formally launching the nuclear negotiation.

So the divide is clearly Sunni v. Shia, the same tension that created ISIS and has torn asunder Iraq and Syria. Iran’s foreign minister kindly pointed this out in an interview with Iran’s state-run satellite channel Al-Alam: “We have always warned countries from the region and the West to be careful and not enter shortsighted games and not go in the same direction as al-Qaeda and Daesh,” said Mohammad Javad Zarif, referring to ISIS by its Arabic initials.

The warning was a bit disingenuous, given Iran’s role as overlord of the Shia side of the divide. Tehran has been an essential ally of the Shi’ite-inflected Syrian regime led by President Bashar Assad, and a major player in Iraq, where on Thursday, three of the Shi’ite militias it backs announced they were dropping out of the fight for Tikrit, to protest the new American role in the battle.

In Yemen, Tehran is the primary sponsor of the Houthi tribe, providing training, arms and money. The Houthis were once largely confined to the country’s north, seat of its Zaidi brand of Shi’ism, but in September they took over the capital city of Sana. After linking up with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime Yemeni president who was deposed during the Arab Spring, the Houthis marched on the southern port of Aden, where the elected president, Abed Raggo Mansour Hadi had been holed up before fleeing Yemen by boat ahead of Wednesday’s airstrikes. He was later seen meeting with the Saudi defense minister.

In peace, Yemen is an amazing country to visit. It doesn’t look like anywhere else on Earth, except maybe the illustrations in a storybook. It’s also an ideal example of what happens when a state collapses—or really, never coalesces in the first place. And that lesson really explains what the United States is doing in both Yemen and Iraq.

States were designed to bring coherence to human affairs, first and foremost by monopolizing the use of violence. In Iraq the government of Saddam Hussein used to manage that coherence—albeit brutally. And then the U.S. invasion of 2003 dismantled Iraq’s military, and distributed political power on sectarian lines. Now, in the battle against ISIS, which rushed into the void left by a state that has continued to fail, the U.S. finds itself joining Iran in an effort to re-establish the power of the weak central government in Baghdad. That government is dominated by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority—as well as by Tehran, which does not want chaos on the long border the two countries share.

Yemen, on the other hand, has never really managed to function as a state. It was two countries—plain old Yemen in the north, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south—as recently as 1990, when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the cleavage to an end. Tribal authority has often trumped the state’s. And the country’s long border is with Saudi Arabia, that seat of Sunni power, and great regional rival of Tehran. Yemen, known as Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia” was so close to the Saudi kingdom that the border was not even demarcated until June 2000, in an agreement signed by Saleh.

So the Iranians are not terribly bothered by turmoil in Yemen, especially if the turmoil ends—as it looked like it might—with the Houthis more or less in charge, by dint of their new alliance with Saleh, and the large sections of the Yemeni military that remain loyal to him. But the end is not yet in sight, and in the meantime, al-Qaeda has maintained its most lethal branch in Yemen, and ISIS has been making its mark, claiming responsibility for the March 20 bombings of Shi’ite mosques that killed more than 130 people. The ensuing chaos forced 100 U.S. advisers off the air base from which they operated the drones that searched for al-Qaeda targets.

Those U.S. advisers are likely to return in some form behind elements of the 150,000 Saudi troops on the Yemen border awaiting orders from Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman, photographed in his war room surrounded by generals in chocolate chip desert fatigues. The uniforms, pattrened after American combat fatigues, say a lot: First, about where the U.S. is in this fight. “We are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support,” the White House said in a statement. The other use of uniforms? Making clear, for a change, who’s actually fighting.

Read next: Arab Leaders Inch Closer to Creation of Joint Military Force

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TIME Congress

Congress Boosts War Spending as Wars Wind Down

Paratroopers march up the ramp as they return home from Afghanistan at Pope Army Airfield in Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Chris Keane—Reuters Paratroopers with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, march up the ramp as they return home from Afghanistan at Pope Army Airfield in Fort Bragg, NC on Nov. 5, 2014.

The 2016 House and Senate budget proposals for war spending that moved toward a congressional floor vote this week were loaded up with tens of billions of dollars more than the Defense Department requested, representing the largest increase lawmakers have attempted to add to the executive branch’s requests for such funds.

These moves — which come as the Obama administration tries to wind down the U.S. war in Afghanistan and to steer clear of a large new incursion in Iraq — were pushed through by Republican lawmakers that since 2003 have received a total $8 million in contributions from the political action committees and employees of top defense contractors, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

The proposals emerged from a convoluted congressional debate that pitted pro-defense hawks against federal deficit hawks, with the former — backed by defense industry lobbying — emerging triumphant.

The impetus for boosting war spending is that Congress enacted strict controls on regular Pentagon spending in 2011 and alleviated them only slightly last fiscal year, making a cut likely unless the Pentagon and the defense industry found new funds elsewhere. Supportive lawmakers as a result turned to the only military account not subject to spending caps, namely the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), a funding category created in 2001 for temporary expenditures associated with combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported in December, OCO over the years has become a slush fund for lawmakers and administration officials seeking to retain or expand military programs with no direct relationship to those wars.

But they’ve never sought to do it as blatantly or unashamedly as they did this month, when the Senate Budget Committee voted in a straight party-line vote to spend $96 billion in the OCO budget for 2016, and the House Budget Committee voted similarly to spend $94 billion. The amount appropriated for OCO in 2015 was $63 billion. While no precise listing of the additional programs to be funded under the Republican proposals has yet been released, lawmakers who favored the OCO increases did not assert that the extra funds were needed only for the wars.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) were the principal sponsors of the successful Senate amendment to grow the OCO account. In urging a positive vote, Graham — who is exploring a presidential run — provided a long but imprecise list of security threats: “Everything that you have in common, radical Islam hates, and if somebody doesn’t do something about it soon, they will come our way again,” he told the committee, adding that increases to the OCO account were needed “to defend the nation.”

Signaling a difference of views among Republicans, the House Rules Committee on Monday night approved two versions of the OCO provision, requiring a final decision on the House floor. One sets OCO spending at $94 billion but requires $20 billion of that sum to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere, and another sets OCO spending at $96 billion while not requiring any offsets.

In total, the 67 current members of the House and Senate Budget and House Rules committees have received $15.6 million in adjusted dollars from the 2013 fiscal year top 75 defense contractors’ PACS and employees, from 2003 through the end of the 2014 election season.

On average, the top defense contractors gave Republicans $264,244 apiece while Democrats and Independents received $189,881. The lion’s share of contractor support went to the Senate Budget Committee’s 12 Republicans. The contractors’ PACs and employees contributed $5.7 million to their campaigns and leadership PACs, or an average of $472,219 per lawmaker.

Republicans on the House Rules committee received a total of $2.3 million, making them the second-highest average recipients of contractor largesse.

Graham received $760,244. The other sponsor of the amendment to increase the OCO fund, Ayotte, has less seniority than Graham but is one of the top average recipients of defense contractor contributions, calculated on a two-year basis, among the 67 committee members. First elected to the Senate in 2010, she’s raised $363,205 from the top contractors.

Two Senate Budget Democrats were also among the top 10 recipients of defense contractor contributions, though they voted against the Graham and Ayotte amendment. Hailing from a state that many defense companies call home, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia received $1,053,271 in adjusted dollars. He was followed by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the fourth highest recipient overall, who received $823,536 in adjusted dollars.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) disputed Graham’s claims during last week’s Senate Budget Committee hearing, saying the United States already spends more on defense than the next nine countries, and he rebuked his fellow senators for adding to the national deficit. “Republicans took us into protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—and ran up our national debt by trillions because they chose not to pay for those wars,” he said in a prepared statement.

The Center calculated campaign contributions in 2014 dollars from the top 75 defense contractors, as ranked in fiscal 2013, using campaign data compiled by The Center for Responsive Politics as well as data from the Federal Election Commission.

This story is from The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. To follow their investigations into government spending and national security, follow them on Twitter.

TIME Iraq

ISIS Digs Heels Into Tikrit as Iraq Offensive Slows

A Sunni fighter who has joined Shi'ite militia groups known collectively as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), allied with Iraqi forces against the Islamic State, looks at an Islamic State flag and ammunition displayed in al-Alam Salahuddin province, March 15, 2015.
Thaier Al-ASudani—Reuters A Sunni fighter who has joined Shi'ite militia groups known collectively as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), allied with Iraqi forces against ISIS, looks at an Islamic State flag and ammunition displayed in al-Alam Salahuddin province, March 15, 2015.

Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militiamen struggle to make progress in Saddam Hussein's hometown

Correction appended

Although Iraqi forces have been waging war against ISIS in Tikrit for two weeks, the battle to drive the jihadists from the town has come to a stalemate. The militants remain stubbornly lodged there despite an assault from Iraqi security forces numbering in the thousands, along with 20,000 Shi’ite militiamen.

Last week Iraqi officials and leaders from Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of the mostly Shi’ite militias, boasted they would have control of Tikrit within days, but now their offensive is on hold even though the numbers are on their side.

“I’d be surprised if there was more than a thousand ISIS in there,” says Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, who completed several tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq. “Based on the numbers alone, they should have done it a long time ago.”

So why haven’t they? ISIS, which has controlled the Tigris river hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein since it took over swathes of Iraq last June, has used those months to prepare for this battle. The militants are embedded in the town’s center, and the Iraqi-led fighters say they have used snipers and IEDs—improvised explosive devices—to create a dangerous fortress. While most civilians have fled, some still remain, making combat even more complicated.

“It’s street to street now,” says Karim al-Nouri, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces. He says the operation has already retaken 8,000 square kilometers from ISIS near Tikrit, and has not been stopped but merely slowed in its tracks. “Now we need to be more careful so we can have victory with less casualties.”

But neither the Iraqi national forces nor these Shi’ite militias are trained for this sort of offensive operation, says Harmer. The Shi’ite militiamen are capable and experienced fighters, many having fought the Americans during the Iraq war. But their role is usually to defend their own territory, not advance on other forces. “When you get right down to it, this is a super well-armed neighborhood watch group,” says Harmer. ISIS, on the other hand, is “used to this kind of warfare,” he says. “They are used to being outnumbered.”

The Iraqi army has reclaimed territory elsewhere with the help of the U.S.-led coalition and its air strikes, but those have been conspicuously absent this time. That may be because of the involvement of the Iranians in what has become the biggest offensive yet against ISIS in Iraq. Images posted online claim to show American Abrams and Iranian Safir-74 tanks side by side moving against ISIS positions in the Saladin Governorate, while Major General Qasem Soleimani, who coordinates Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, has been photographed on the battlefield.

Nouri, the Popular Mobilization Forces spokesperson, is coy about Iranian involvement, saying only that the Iranians have a planning and advisory role, and that there are no Iranian troops or weapons on the battlefield. “Of course if Iran wants to help us to fight ISIS they are welcome,” he says. “Anyone who wants to help us fight terrorism is welcome.”

Despite this entreaty, the U.S. said it had not been invited to provide air support when the offensive began. “Iraq is their country, it’s their military, their fight against [ISIS],” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters in Iraq earlier this month. “They didn’t request support for it, and we didn’t provide support for it.”

But now that the advance on Tikrit has slowed, Baghdad has signaled American jets might be needed to help forces advance on Tikrit. But that will be hard for Washington, given Iran’s role in the operation.

“The U.S. cannot be in the position of actively supporting an Iran offensive,” says Harmer. “For all practice purposes the Shi’ite militias are functioning as a subset of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, or Quds force.”

Nouri says U.S. air strikes wouldn’t help much in the battle for Tikrit’s center. It would be technically difficult as the militants are embedded with civilians, and besides the U.S. has no one on the ground to call in the strikes. But what the U.S. could do is hit ISIS positions outside the town and convoys heading to Tikrit from places like Mosul, the largest city under control of ISIS and its base of operations.

Without that, there’s no telling how long the battle for Tikrit might continue. Nouri says it will be over within a week, but officials were saying that a week ago. What is clear is that the halting progress made so far will be giving some in Washington and Baghdad pause for thought. The Tikrit operation has been seen as a trial run for the eventual operation to retake Mosul, one that U.S. and Iraqi officials have suggested might happen as soon as the spring. But the longer this goes on, the less likely ISIS will be driven from its Iraqi stronghold any time soon.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated which group Christopher Harmer described as a “super well-armed neighborhood watch group.” He was referring to the Shi’ite militiamen.

TIME Iraq

Saddam Hussein’s Tomb Destroyed Amid Fierce Fighting in Iraq’s Tikrit

An Iraqi soldier takes photos of the demolished tomb of former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, in Tikrit, Iraq, March 15, 2015
Khalid Mohammed—AP An Iraqi soldier takes photos of the demolished tomb of former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, in Tikrit, Iraq, March 15, 2015

Clashes between ISIS and progovernment forces have reportedly reduced the despot's mausoleum to rubble

Heavy fighting between ISIS and a coalition of Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia forces has reportedly destroyed Saddam Hussein’s tomb in his hometown of Tikrit, 140 km northwest of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, according to a new video released by the Associated Press.

However, the tomb does not hold the former tyrant’s body, which was exhumed and moved last year amid fears that intense clashes would damage his remains, reports the BBC.

Sunday’s video shows his mausoleum nearly razed to the ground, with posters of the former Iraqi President swapped for flags of Shi‘ite militias or posters of Shi‘ite leaders in Iran, which has become heavily involved in the battle against ISIS, a Sunni extremist group.

Tikrit fell under ISIS control last June, but approximately 30,000 Iraqi and 20,000 Shi‘ite forces are currently battling for its recapture before a planned advance to the country’s second largest city, ISIS-held Mosul.

This is not the first time Saddam’s tomb has suffered damage. Last August, ISIS claimed to have destroyed the structure, but this was disputed by officials.

“This is one of the areas where ISIS militants massed the most because Saddam’s grave is here,” said militia Captain Yasser Nu’ma.

[BBC]

Read next: ISIS Demands a Harsh Tax to Leave Town

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TIME Iraq

Nelly Performs in Iraq to Support Victims of ISIS

It's getting hot in Erre-bil

Correction appended, March 17

Grammy award-winning artist Nelly, whose hits like Hot in Herre and Dilemma topped charts in the early 2000s, took to a stage on Friday in Erbil, Iraq to raise support for the embattled Kurds.

Nelly performed at a charity event hosted by Rwanga, a regional humanitarian organization. Ticket sales to the performance, which coincided with an annual soccer tournament, were donated to “those impacted by the recent conflict in the area,” Rwanga said.

Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria have been on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which seized large swathes of both countries and came within some 25 miles of Erbil before Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, helped push them back with support from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

The event—which also included a motocross show—drew 15,000 people.

Correction: The original version of this story, using information from the humanitarian group Rwanga, incorrectly described the history of American artists performing in Erbil. Other Americans performed there before Nelly.

TIME

ISIS Claims Australian Involved in Suicide Attack

ISIS claims that the Melbourne teenager blew himself up in coordinated attacks in Iraq.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria claimed on social media that an Australian teenager who joined its ranks blew himself up in an attack in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

The extremist group circulated on Twitter on Wednesday an image that claims to show 18-year-old James Bilardi of Melbourne preparing for an attack and appears to show him driving a battered SUV, Australia’s ABC reports. The images and claims—which use Bilardi’s pseudonym Abu Abdullah al-Australi—have not been independently confirmed.

“There are unconfirmed reports to this effect. This is a horrific situation, an absolutely horrific situation,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, according to ABC. “It shows the lure of this death cult to impressionable youngsters.”

An estimated 90 Australian citizens have joined ISIS, according to Australian security forces, and twenty have died.

On Wednesday, at least a dozen car bombs exploded in a coordinated attack in Anbar province targeting Iraqi forces.

[ABC]

TIME Military

Iran Looms Over ISIS Fight as Baghdad-Tehran Alliance Moves Into Tikrit

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (L), U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (C) and Secretary of State John Kerry testify at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "The President's Request for Authorization to Use Force Against ISIS: Military and Diplomatic Efforts" on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 11, 2015.
Kevin Lamargue—Reuters Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (L), U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (C) and Secretary of State John Kerry testify at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "The President's Request for Authorization to Use Force Against ISIS: Military and Diplomatic Efforts" on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 11, 2015.

Lawmakers press U.S. high command over Iran's growing influence

The future of Iraq and Syria was supposed to be the focus of Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. No surprise there, given the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria occupies about a third of each nation.

But the subplot — like a shark’s fin endlessly circling Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey and Secretary of State John Kerry — was Iran.

Iran came up at the hearing 67 times, nearly as much as Iraq (79) and more than Syria (44).

The hearing carried echoes of similar ones more than a decade ago that portrayed Iraq as a threat worth going to war to stop. “I think they have the same suspicion about us that we have of them,” Dempsey said of his Iranian counterparts.

Republican lawmakers pointedly asked the trio if the Obama Administration was averting its eyes from Iran’s growing presence in Iraq in hopes of greasing the skids for a nuclear deal with Tehran. “I believe that much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by a desire not to upset Iran so that they don’t walk away from the negotiating table on the deal that you’re working on,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said.

“Absolutely not in the least,” Kerry countered.

But as the hearing droned on, Iraq was succeeding in pushing ISIS fighters out of Tikrit after a 10-day battle. While Baghdad did it with no American help, it had substantial aid from neighboring Iran.

Dempsey detailed just how extensive Iran’s help was in the battle for Tikrit: 20,000 of the 24,000 troops fighting ISIS in and around the city, or more than 80%, were “Iranian trained and somewhat Iranian equipped” Shi‘ite militia.

Tikrit carries a key lesson: Iraq can beat ISIS without U.S. assistance, so long as it has Iran by its side. “If it’s Iran that is at the tip of the spear here, if they’re the ones sponsoring the victories … they’re going to have influence in Iraq,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said. “That’s going to be very, very difficult, very tenuous, very dangerous for the regional peace.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs listed six things that concern him about Iran’s growing role in Iraq and the region:

Four of them are regional, two of them are global. The four regional concerns are: surrogates and proxies, some of which are present in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and other places, and Yemen; weapons trafficking; ballistic missile technologies; and mines that they’ve developed with the intent to be able to close the Straits of Hormuz if certain circumstances would cause them to do that. And then the two global threats, of course, are their nuclear aspirations. Not their nuclear aspirations for a peaceful nuclear program, but for a weapon, which is being dealt with through the negotiations on a diplomatic track. And then cyber is the other global threat they pose.

Dempsey said Iran’s role in the fight for Tikrit is “positive,” but warned of what might happen next. “We are all concerned about what happens after the drums stop beating and [ISIS] is defeated,” he said. “We’re very concerned about that.”

Later Wednesday, Carter noted that “there are actually several important battles going on, in some of which the Iranians play no role at all.”

Back at the hearing, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee chairman, wondered aloud if the Iranian-backed militia might attack the 3,000 American troops currently in Iraq.

“We have no indications that they intend to turn on us,” Dempsey said.

That’s hardly reassuring, given Iran’s track record in Iraq. After the 2003 U.S. invasion, Pentagon officials say Tehran provided Shi‘ite militias inside Iraq with a sophisticated form of IEDs. These so-called explosively formed penetrators killed hundreds of U.S. troops.

Read next: Why Iran Believes ISIS is a U.S. Creation

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TIME Iraq

Iraqi Troops and Shi‘ite Militias Have Retaken Large Areas of Tikrit From ISIS

IRAQ-CONFLICT
Ahmad al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images Iraqi soldiers raise their weapons as they cheer on the outskirts of the city of Tikrit as they prepare to launch a military operation to take control of the city from ISIS on March 10, 2015.

The operation was the Iraqi government's largest to date in the fight against ISIS

After a week of intense fighting, Iraqi and Shi‘ite forces have retaken major parts of Tikrit — a strategically vital city in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle — from ISIS. Iranian military officials were also reportedly involved in the city’s recapture.

The battle, involving over 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and allied Shi‘ite militia, was the largest government operation to date and may be a prelude to recapturing Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control, the New York Times reports.

The U.S. was notably absent in direct military offensives in Tikrit, with some officials articulating unease about the central role of Shi‘ite militias and the Iranians in the recapture of Tikrit.

The Iraqi Prime Minister’s spokesperson Rafid Jaboori told the New York Times that the U.S., along with Kurdish forces, would play “a significant role” in retaking Mosul, adding that the U.S. and Iran shared an overarching objective of crushing ISIS.

Meanwhile, in northern Syria, U.S. air strikes have enabled Kurdish forces to reclaim dozens of ISIS-controlled villages, the U.S. Central Command reported.

[NY Times]

Read next: Why the Fight Against ISIS Has to Go Through the Cities

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TIME Military

Why the Fight Against ISIS Has to Go Through the Cities

Operation against Daesh militants in Iraq's Tikrit
Ali Mohammed / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Clashes between Iraqi forces and ISIS sent smoke billowing into the skies over Tikrit on Monday.

Iraqi forces reportedly move into Tikrit after more than a week of fighting

Urban warfare is the only way the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria will be defeated. That’s because while it occupies a wide desert swath of those two nations, it’s holed up in its cities. In part, that’s to shield the Islamic militants from attack, but it’s also because the rest of the land they occupy is barren and desolate.

The 10-day battle now underway for Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown 80 miles north of Baghad, is simply the first domino in a row of cities that must fall if ISIS is to be beaten. Iraqi forces and their Iranian-led Shi’ite militia allies moved a step closer Tuesday as they reportedly drove ISIS fighters from large parts of the city amid indications that many militants were in retreat.

If the Iraqi government succeeds in retaking Tikrit, it will push on toward other critical towns like ISIS-occupied Fallujah. The most important domino is Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the base from which ISIS controls northern Iraq.

“If you look at the area that is claimed right now by ISIS as a sort of block of territory that it controls, actually it’s not a continuous area; it’s a network of cities and the links, the roads, the rivers and trails between those cities that connect them,” guerrilla warfare guru David Kilcullen told Australian television Tuesday. “Inevitably, as we get into a ground war against ISIS, it’s going to play out in these urban centers which really are the basis for ISIS’s power in Iraq and also in Syria.”

The Pentagon is debating whether or not to ask President Obama to send reinforcements to bolster the 3,000 U.S. troops already on Iraqi soil to accompany front-line Iraqi units in the fight for Mosul. While U.S. troops have been training Iraqi forces and conducting air strikes, Obama has barred them from the front lines, where they could act as spotters for those air strikes and garner intelligence.

Some 14,000 U.S. troops fought to drive Sunni militants out of Fallujah in late 2004. “I am sorry that some of you may have to go back,” Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told General Joseph Dunford, the Marine commandant, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “The only commitment I will make, as a senator from South Carolina, is that if you go back, you go back to win and that we get this right this time.”

Urban warfare requires the attacker to clear his enemy room by room, building by building, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood—and then secure the cleared areas to ensure the enemy doesn’t return. City combat blunts the attackers’ advantages. “Urban canyons” offers hideouts for foes and civilians, as well as sniper nests and underground lairs from which combatants can strike. Buildings create vast “dead spaces” for an enemy to exploit. They hinder communication and mobility. Overhead wires can bring down choppers and drones.

ISIS is well aware of those advantages. “This is not an enemy that is sitting around in the open desert waiting for me to come find it and either use U.S. or French aircraft to attack it,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Sunday while aboard a French aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. “They did some of that in the beginning and paid the price. So the enemy has adapted and they have developed tactics and techniques that make them a little more difficult to find.”

In other words, they’re hiding in the cities. Attackers in urban environments, for example, can’t survey the entire battlefield and instead see only bits and pieces; it’s like playing chess while viewing only four squares on the board. This battlefield compression means that low-ranking fighters must often make life-and-death decisions.

These choices come fast and furious when you’re fighting downtown: historically, 90% of the targets are less than 50 yards away and seen for only seconds. Killing innocent civilians—or your own men—is a risk that goes with the terrain. A quarter of all explosive rounds turn into duds when they glance off walls and roofs. About one of every three street-fighting combatants ends up as a casualty. It takes a minimum of three attackers to root out a single foe dug into a city; the Pentagon prefers a ratio of 10-to-1.

The Baghdad military’s lack of city-fighting skills could lead to drawn-out bloodbaths, where ISIS fighters booby-trap buildings and set up kill zones for advancing Iraqi troops. “Iraqi security forces are not terribly proficient in urban warfare,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Charlie Rose Mar. 3.

Ancient Muslim sectarian strife also makes the fight for Tikrit and other ISIS-held Iraqi cities challenging. The fact that Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are leading some of the units attacking the city could make retaking it and others more difficult. The militias are allied with the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government. But both ISIS and most residents of the Iraqi territory it occupies are Sunnis. That could make the residents reluctant to join forces with their Shi’ite liberators, as well as keep them from abandoning their co-religionists.

The kind of urban warfare facing the Iraqi forces “is very, very different, very complex, requires a great deal of skill, great deal of precision to be successful,” Marine Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned Congress recently.

Ultimately, Iraqi forces could opt for patience. They could cordon off a city with a porous ring of tanks and armored vehicles. That would let civilians flee while keeping ISIS reinforcements and supplies out. Pressure could be ratcheted up by shutting off water and power.

One way or another, with enough fighters, weapons, time and will, the attackers generally prevail. The real challenge is making sure time and will are on your side before advancing into the city.

TIME Iraq

Turkey PM Warns That Assault on ISIS in Tikrit Could Ignite Sectarian Tensions

Shi’ite fighters launch a rocket towards ISIS militants during heavy fighting in Salahuddin province, Iraq, March 4, 2015.
Mahmoud Raouf—Reuters Shi’ite fighters launch a rocket towards ISIS militants during heavy fighting in Salahuddin province, Iraq, March 4, 2015.

Warnings that a defeat for ISIS could lead to bloody Sunni-Shi'ite warfare in Iraq

By sending Shi’ite militias and Iranian forces to battle ISIS in Tikrit, Iraq risks stoking the sectarian divide that nourishes the extremist group. So warns Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“If Daesh is a big threat in Iraq, another threat is Shi’ite militias,” Davutoglu told TIME in a Wednesday interview, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria by its Arabic initials. “This is very important. If Daesh evacuates Tikrit or Mosul and if Shi’ite militias come in, then there will be sectarian war. Therefore all these cities, Sunni populated areas, should be liberated by the inhabitants of those cities.”

Davutoglu’s warning raises the question of whether Iraq’s leadership has changed as much as U.S. officials hope. ISIS swept up the city of Fallujah last spring, and Mosul, Tikrit and other Sunni regions in June, in part by offering itself as protector of a minority Sunni population that had been excluded and even persecuted by the central government in Baghdad, which is dominated by autocrats who have overtly favored the country’s Shi’ite majority. Iraq’s corrupt and poorly led military, also dominated by Shi’ites, fled the battlefield en masse as ISIS advanced last summer, while many Sunni tribes essentially welcomed ISIS. The first major stand government troops made was at Samarra, home of a major religious shrine revered by Shi’ites.

The offensive on Tikrit, which began just days ago, is the first major counterattack aimed at ISIS, and observers are concerned that two-thirds of the force of 30,000 attackers are Shi’ite militia. They are backed by Iranian warplanes, artillery, rockets and advisors, including Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who was photographed near the front line on Wednesday, drinking tea with beaming members of the Badr Brigades—a militia trained and equipped by Iran. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things,” Joint Chiefs of Staff chair General Dempsey, told a Senate committee on Tuesday, noting that U.S. warplanes are playing no role in the Tikrit assault. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

It’s a big if. Turkey’s Davutoglu notes there is scant evidence of the local Sunnis who are supposedly being trained for a later assault on Mosul, the Iraqi government having promoted legislation that allows Sunnis to form “national guard” units that amount to militias of their own. “[The Sunni guards] should have a role,” the Turkish premier said. “In Iraq the government passed a new law forming national guards. But unfortunately now Shiite militias form national guards, while Sunnis in Anbar or in Tikrit and in Mosul, they were not allowed to. For us, Sunnis and Shiites are our brothers, we don’t make any difference. But we don’t want to see another wave of sectarian war.”

Davutoglu said he voiced the warning to Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi in a conversation 10 days earlier. Al-Abadi has cast himself as a more moderate and inclusive Shi’ite leader than the highly sectarian premier he replaced, Nour al-Maliki. But the country remains sharply divided on ethnic and sectarian lines: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the west, and Shi’ites everywhere else. The danger is of a wholesale sectarian blood-letting like the civil war that left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007, when U.S. troops were still in the country. ISIS, with its extremist Sunni orientation, is both a product and an agent of the strife, having slaughtered thousands of Shi’ites during its summer blitzkrieg, including more than 1,000 recruits at a military base outside Tikrit in June. The men were lined up, made to lie in freshly dug trenches, and executed on camera.

Human rights group warn that Shi’ite militias are already exacting revenge, burning down buildings and carrying out extrajudicial killings in Sunni areas taken back from ISIS. “The day of judgment is coming,” Badr Brigades commander Hadi al-Ameri (who was transport minister under al-Maliki) warned residents of the Diyala Province town of Muqdadiyaa on Dec. 29. “We will attack the area until nothing is left. Is my message clear?” Clear enough. The question is whether anyone beyond Iraq was listening.

 

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