What Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi Must Do Next
Tikrit exposed that Iran is not as strong as advertised in Iraq — and Washington not as weak.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s visit to Washington this week marks roughly six months since he assumed office. Although Iraq still requires significant military and political reform, Abadi has won respect at home and abroad for his efforts to pull Iraq back from the abyss. The visit also comes shortly after Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. air power, routed the Islamic State, or ISIS, from the Sunni town of Tikrit. Both the United States and Iraq’s leadership should look to lessons learned in the Battle for Tikrit, which in size and scope was merely the dress rehearsal for any future attempts to recapture Mosul and Fallujah—both necessary objectives to eradicate ISIS and restore Iraq’s territorial sovereignty.
In the weeks leading up to the assault on Tikrit, Iraq martialed 30,000 Iraqi military and Shia militia members mostly backed by Iran. Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, was on the ground as the mastermind of Iraq’s offensive. Hadi al-Ameri, Suleimani’s lieutenant in Iraq and the leader of the Badr militia, at a news conference on March 22, said, “Some of the weaklings in the army say that we need the Americans, but we say we do not need the Americans.”
Except that they did. After the offensive began on March 2, it rapidly ground to a halt. An estimated 300 ISIS fighters dug into parts of Tikrit, managed to hold off an Iraqi army and militia that outnumbered them roughly 100-to-1 for several weeks. After three weeks of fighting, Abadi and his generals realized their forces couldn’t take Tikrit without U.S. airpower and requested support from the U.S. After two days of U.S. airstrikes, Iraqi Army forces and Shia militiamen who grudgingly stayed to ensure they received credit resumed their stalled offensive and were able to seize Tikrit. Soleimani, in response to the request for U.S. airstrikes, left the battlefield unwilling or unable to publicly face the fact that the Iran’s support was inadequate.
The Battle for Tikrit showed the limits of Iran’s power and influence in Iraq. Before Tikrit, many Iraq experts were warning that the U.S. has all but lost Iraq to Iran’s influence. However the battle showed Baghdad’s relationship with the United States vs. Tehran is not yet settled -- the U.S. continues holds significant leverage. With Abadi’s upcoming Washington visit, now is the time to double down on our commitment and engagement with Iraqi leadership.
First, the U.S. and Iraq, if they aren’t already, should re-forge military relationships and improve coordination and U.S. support of Iraqi forces in anticipation of future operations. Tikrit was a misfire; zero-hour timing can’t be left to Iran and the militias. Iraqi forces were not ready for the battle and the offensive that began with much fanfare stalled out without U.S. support. For the battle of Mosul or Fallujah, the U.S. and Iraq must coordinate publicly and closely.
Second, Abadi just showed that his administration and generals are not helpless or unwilling to push back against foreign influence, including Tehran. President Barack Obama should use his meetings with the prime minister to point that out and show appreciation as a partner for the nuances of Abadi’s difficult job. In Iraq, Tikrit exposed strong differences over the need for U.S. military support between the Badr Brigade and the Iraqi ministry of defense. The rift showed that there is still an at least relatively independent national defense institution that pays more attention to Iraq’s national security interests than the grandiose rhetoric of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard proxies.
Third, the visit presents the opportunity to help Abadi empower Iraqi military forces that are less Shiite-dominated and less beholden to Iran, namely in the regular army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and the National Guard. The U.S. should work closely with Baghdad to assemble a realistic force for the attack on Mosul, and that includes pressing Abadi to do more to bring Sunni fighters, who represented less than 5 percent of the Tikrit force. Iraq is going to need greater Sunni participation to successfully take Mosul, and especially Fallujah—a major city in the heartland of the Sunni tribal region.
A proposal before the Iraqi parliament to stand up the Iraqi National Guard, (a beefed up version of the Sons of Iraq, who were stood up by the U.S. in 2006 to fight al-Qaeda), has been stalled by lawmakers under Iranian influence attempting to keep Iraq’s security forces almost exclusively Shiite. The U.S. must provide incentives for Iraqi lawmakers to push this measure through. Greater Sunni involvement in the fight against Sunni-derived ISIS will run help counter to the ISIS narrative that this war is an apocalyptic conflict between Sunni and Shia. It will also give Sunnis a stake in the future of Iraq and provide balance to the growing influence of Shia backed militias.
The battle for Mosul may be months away, but the lessons from Tikrit should be used now to inform the strategy for a closely orchestrated U.S.-Iraq effort to strike at the heart of ISIS.