Pentagon Shifts Policy, Provides Airpower to Aid Iranian Troops inside Iraq
March 26, 2015
Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian
In a major policy reversal, reportedly at request of Iraqi prime minister, the Pentagon is placing American airpower close to a supporting role for the Iranian-backed militias on the ground in the fight against ISIS insurgents. The introduction of US combat aircraft above Tikrit has brought the Obama administration to an awkward point it has long dismissed: a tactical, if tacit, alliance with Iran, its greatest rival in the Middle East.
US Warplanes Begin Air Strikes on Isis in Iraqi City of Tikrit
Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian
NEW YORK (March 25, 2015) -- US military warplanes have begun targeting Islamic State positions in the Iraqi city of Tikrit on Wednesday, a reversal that has placed American airpower dramatically close to a supporting role for Iranian-backed militias on the ground.
"I can confirm that the government of Iraq has requested coalition support for operations in Tikrit. Operations are ongoing," a Pentagon spokesman, army colonel Steve Warren, confirmed on Wednesday afternoon.
The senior general conducting the US's latest war in Iraq, Lieutenant General James Terry, sidestepped all questions of Iranian involvement or influence in the fight for Tikrit in a statement on Wednesday.
The air strikes, which Terry said resulted from the direct request of the Iraqi prime minister, Haider Abadi, "will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat Isil in the vicinity of Tikrit".
Though expected for the better part of a week and unlikely to be coordinated with Iran's proxies, the belated introduction of US combat aircraft above Tikrit has brought the Obama administration to an awkward point it has long dismissed: a tactical, if tacit, alliance with its greatest rival in the Middle East.
As the Iraqi forces nominally in charge of the fight for Tikrit billed their operation as a dry run for the more difficult, upcoming fight for Mosul -- Iraq's second largest city -- the new US air strikes on Tikrit raise questions about the anti-Isis war moving formally toward US-Iranian cooperation, with a fig leaf of Iraqi coordination for mutual deniability.
The US military has stayed at arm's distance from the month-long battle to seize the Sunni Iraqi city from Isis, seemingly out of concern for keeping the American and Iranian campaigns against the shared enemy functionally separate.
Yet as the ground offensive -- led by Iraqi forces and with Iranian-backed Shia militia in support -- has stalled, US surveillance flights over Tikrit began earlier this week.
Deep consternation exists in Washington, among both political parties, over the appearance of US warplanes providing close air support for Shia militias and their Iranian sponsors. Some US-trained Iraqi military units and Shia militias are under investigation for committing atrocities, similar to those of Isis. The Iranian general Qassem Suleimani is believed to be playing a leadership role in what has devolved into a grinding fight to recapture Saddam Hussein's birthplace from Isis.
"There's going to be some tightrope-walking in saying this is an Iraqi security forces offensive and not an Iranian militia offensive," said Christopher Harmer, a retired US navy officer and analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, who said he was "astonished" at the development.
Earlier this month, John Brennan, the director of the CIA, foreshadowed closer military coordination with the Iranians, laundered through the Iraqi government.
"There's an alignment of some interests between ourselves and Iran, clearly, in terms of what Isil [Isis] has done there," Brennan told a New York audience on 13 March.
In congressional testimony earlier this month, the senior US military officer, army general Martin Dempsey, raised concerns about sectarian and human-rights abuses by Iranian-backed militia forces. Yet Dempsey also conceded that he saw utility in Iranian forces advancing on Isis.
"I think there's general consensus both inside of our own forces and also with the coalition partners with whom I engage that anything anyone does to counter Isil is in the main a good outcome," Dempsey told the Senate foreign relations committee on 11 March.
"In other words, the activities of the Iranians, the support for the Iraqi security forces is a positive thing in military terms against Isil," he said. "But we are all concerned about what happens after the drums stop beating and Isil is defeated, and whether the government of Iraq will remain on a path to provide an inclusive government for all of the various groups within it."
Barack Obama has ruled out using US forces for "large-scale" ground combat in Iraq, a porous prohibition that nevertheless leaves the US struggling to find infantry and armor components to a war it has waged primarily from the air from its August inception. Iraqi military forces, rebuilt by the US during the 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq, are now being re-advised by US forces, primarily special operators.
US air support in the battle for Tikrit is likely to reinvigorate speculation that US-led nuclear diplomacy with Iran -- which has six days to find resolution -- will herald a far broader realignment of influence in the Middle East, with Obama tacitly backing away from traditional US opposition to Iranian regional ambitions. In the Middle East, that fear has led to an awkward rejectionist coalition of Israel and the Gulf Sunni autocracies, the US's traditional regional clients.
"This is the result of the US not having enough influence left in Iraq to keep the Iranians out," Harmer said. "We are essentially at this point support an Iranian government offensive in Tikrit.".
"It got to the point where we had to do it or the continued survival of the Isis garrison in Tikrit would have been a huge propaganda victory."
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