The Observer view on Iran’s intervention in Tikrit .
Popular mobilisation units, pictured in action near Tikrit, answer to Tehran, not Baghdad. Photograph: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
The large-scale offensive launched last week by Iraqi security forces and allied Shia Muslim militias against Islamic State (Isis) terrorists in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, is, on the face of it, a welcome development. The operation, the biggest of its kind since swaths of central and northern Iraq were overrun last summer, marks a coming of age for the country’s new government and prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. At the very least, it has forced Isis on to the defensive.
The US and Britain, pursuing their own limited air campaigns against Isis, have been urging Iraqi leaders to stand up to the extremist Sunni Muslim group. After several false starts, they now appear to be doing so. “This was put together by the Iraqis, formulated by the Iraqis, executed by the Iraqis, and that’s the best thing all of us could, frankly, ask for,” said John Kerry, the US secretary of state. “So we take it the way it is and we’ll hope for the best results.”
As so often in the Middle East, Kerry may be sadly disappointed. One reason is that the offensive, targeted principally at the strategic city of Tikrit, quickly ground to a halt around the eastern towns of al-Alam and al-Dour after Isis, unsurprisingly, hit back with roadside booby traps and suicide bombers. Although Iraqi officials expressed confidence that Tikrit would fall soon, it is clear they face an extended hit-and-run battle for every house, street and town. This does not bode well for the bigger challenge to come – the reconquest of Iraq’s second city, Mosul.
Kerry’s cheery prognosis is also undermined by the devastating impact of the fighting on the mostly Sunni population of Salahuddin. Claims that Tikrit emptied after the Isis takeover are misleading. Thousands of less well-off civilians remain there, trapped between advancing, predominantly Shia forces and Isis fanatics who threaten to use them as human shields.
The Sunnis’ plight is exacerbated by well-founded fears that they may be victimised by the Shia militiamen who comprise about two-thirds of the 30,000-strong Iraqi force. Abadi has called for discipline and restraint. But Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, is the symbolic seat of Sunni power. Sunnis fear that Shia elements may seek revenge for past sectarian violence, notably last year’s massacre of 1,700 young Shia recruits when Isis, aided by local Sunni tribes, captured the city. Parallels are being drawn with nearby Fallujah, scene of apocalyptic devastation during the American occupation.
The offensive threatens, potentially, to deliver an even more far-reaching and destabilising outcome: a strategic triumph for Iran. As US and Iraqi officials admit, with varying degrees of misgiving, Iran is more or less directing the show. The Shia militias, under the umbrella of the Hashd al-Shaabi “popular mobilisation units”, answer ultimately to Tehran, not Baghdad. Iran has provided them with weapons and training. And Iran’s most famous general, Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite al-Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, reportedly took personal charge of operations last week.
Significantly, the offensive went ahead without any request for US air support. This is not surprising. For historical and political reasons, Tehran, like Washington, has no interest in overt cooperation, even against a common foe. It is plain Iran intends to win the battle for post-occupation Iraq by itself, without American help, and thereby attain the regional ascendancy that Washington and its allies vainly sought for themselves after 2003. A bitter eight-year war with Saddam’s regime now also seems forgotten. Iran, invited in by Abadi’s Shia predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, is rapidly advancing its influence and interests, almost unchecked.
The wider significance of the Salahuddin offensive is not lost on Iran’s foes. “What is happening in Tikrit is exactly what we are worried about. Iran is taking over Iraq,” said Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister. And this, remember, is the very same country whose liberation, in the name of western democratic values, was held, only 12 short years ago, to be of supreme and vital importance.
Now the US and Britain, lacking coherent, holistic policies towards both Iran and Iraq and reduced to the role of onlookers, keep their fingers crossed and hope for the best. Iran’s leadership role “could be a positive thing”, said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff. Then again, it might not.