Tikrit is a prime example of what we are worried about. Prince Saud al-Faisal
Iran seems to be gradually filling the strategic space created following the US withdrawal.
On March 12, the Senate Intelligence Committee of the United States held a hearing on the security situation in Iraq and Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey were present to brief the senators. The country that hogged the limelight at the hearing was Iran. It was expected, since the US and Iran are involved in a long-winding negotiation on the Iranian nuclear programme. Yet, what was in the minds of the senate leaders was the 10-day-long Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State, aided by Iran, to recapture the Iraqi city of Tikrit. The fight for Tikrit so far has been a major success for the Iraqi forces. The IS captured the city, which is the birth place of former president Saddam Hussein, and an important one in the Sunni triangle, during a major offensive last June in which they captured several major cities in Iraq, including Mosul, its second largest city.
The significant feature of the Tikrit campaign was the absence of American support and the substantial Iranian involvement. As Dempsey revealed during the senate hearing, 80 per cent of the anti-IS fighters were “Iranian-trained and somewhat Iranian-equipped” Shia militiamen. According to a media team which has been closely following the Tikrit campaign, the Iraqi military was taking orders from Shia leaders Hadi al Ameri, who heads the Badr Organization, which was put down by the US military during the 2007 surge. It also seems to be a major failure for the Iraqi army, which received funds to the tune of $20 billion from the US between 2005 and 2012. But the 40,000 men recruited to the army, constituting three light infantry divisions, proved to be so incompetent that it could hardly ever record a victory of its own. The rot was hastened by the decisions of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who used the elite brigades to settle personal scores and ensure that career growth depended upon loyalty to him. Moreover, he sacked nearly all Sunnis (who were already very few to begin with) from key positions, turning the army into another sectarian militia.
No wonder when the IS attacked Iraq last year, they got support from disgruntled Sunni veterans and they quickly overran the Iraqi army’s resistances. Most Shia soldiers ran away fearing execution at the hands of IS militants. With the IS started targeting Shia shrines, Iran decided to step in. It received the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric in Iraq, who asked Iraqis to rally against the IS.
The Iranians, meanwhile, recruited members of the Badr Organization and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, who had combat experience and set up Al Hashed al Shabi [Popular Mobilization Units-PMUs]. Members of the PMUs received support in terms of the commander of its Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, General Qassim Suleimani to oversee the training of the PMUs. Most analysts who have been following the Tikrit offensive see Suleimani’s hands behind the Iraqi forces’ victory so far.
The US, while happy about the defeat of the IS, is watching the increasing Iranian role with concern. Dempsey said he was not sure what would happen once the dust was settled in Tikrit. There are fears that if the Shia militias take complete control of Tikrit, the symbolic seat of Sunni power, there could be revenge attacks for sectarian violence in the past. Last June, the IS killed about 1,600 Shia air force cadets at Camp Speicher near Tikrit and most Shia believe the IS was aided by local Sunnis.
More than the IS, Iran’s active involvement has upset Saudi Arabia, one of Iran’s paramount regional rivals. “Tikrit is a prime example of what we are worried about,” said Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister. “Iran is taking over the country.” Saudi Arabia is losing sleep over Iran’s increasing influence in the neighbourhood. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, depends on Iran for money and military supplies. Without Iranian support, he would not have continued so long in power against powerful opponents. In Yemen, which lies next to Saudi Arabia, a Shia militia backed by Tehran recently ousted pro-Saudi president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saudi Arabia is quite unhappy about the US decision to limit its support to air attacks and Obama’s refusal to send troops back. Last August, for instance, Iran trained and organised Shia militias to break the IS siege of Amerli, a group of Iraqi villages populated by the Shia, who were facing certain death at the hands of the IS. They were helped by the American air power. Although the Iranians and the Americans refuse to acknowledge each other, the Saudis and their Gulf allies are not amused. And, now they are spooked further by the US-Iran nuclear talks.
Iran seems to be gradually filling the strategic space created following the US withdrawal. With the IS emerging as a major force in the region, even the Kurds, who are staunchly pro-US, are looking at Tehran for help. The move could possibly redraw the map of the Middle East, with Iran extending its dominance to the Sunni-dominated Anbar province of Iraq, creating an Iranian sphere of influence covering Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. A couple of days ago, Iran appointed the new head of its Assembly of Elders, the body which elects the supreme leader and oversees his functioning. Surprisingly, it was hardline cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who was not among the frontrunners, who was chosen to the post, indicating that Iran is not about to change its style of functioning.
Yet, there appears to be no alternative to Iran at the moment, as pointed out by Landon Shroder, an intelligence analyst. “At the moment, the only force with the ability to bring Kurdish troops, the Iraqi Army and the Shiite militias together to fight the Islamic State is Iran.”