Smoke rises from central Tikrit during clashes between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State group extremists in Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 26, 2015.

Smoke rises from central Tikrit during clashes between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State group extremists in Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 26, 2015. Khalid Mohammed/AP

What's at Stake in Tikrit

The latest campaign against ISIS has quickly become a flashpoint between Iran and the U.S. for influence in Iraq, says the Council on Foreign Relations' Stephen Biddle.

An American-led coalition launched 17 airstrikes in Iraq late Wednesday night, hammering Islamic State positions in the northern city of Tikrit. President Barack Obama reportedly approved the U.S. strikes after a request from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on the condition that Iraqi government forces working closely with American troops assume primary command of the anti-ISIS operation.

A group of Shiite militias, supported and advised by Iranian forces, took the lead role in the battle for Tikrit in early March, while the United States focused on striking ISIS in other areas. But the offensive had stalled in recent days, and American air support may now help ensure the capture of the symbolically and geographically important city before a move on the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul. The battle may also have implications for which country—Iran or the United States—has more leverage with Iraqi leaders in the future.

"We have started the final phase of the operation in Tikrit,’’ Prime Minister Abadi said in a nationally televised speech Wednesday night. ‘‘You will liberate your ground, not anyone but you."

I spoke to Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international relations at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the battle for Tikrit.

Noah Gordon: What led the administration to approve strikes on Tikrit now? Does the approval suggest the U.S. needed certain assurances about which forces the strikes were supporting?

Stephen Biddle: “We don’t know” is the most truthful answer, because the government has only said so much. The United States has been trying to persuade the Iraqis to reform their military, reform their government, open the Iraqi government to accommodation of legitimate Sunni security interests, and reduce the emphasis on Shiite militias and other groups that Sunnis distrust. The problem all along has been that [the United States] had very little leverage with the Baghdad government and it's been difficult to get them to do things that they view as risky.

One way to interpret what's been going on in Tikrit is to look at how the United States has been using the fact that the Iraqis apparently failed in their attempt to take the city. It's like they're saying: "Our support is more valuable to you and more necessary for you than you thought. If you want it, you need to get on with the business of carrying out the reforms we’ve been asking for. If you don’t reform, we have demonstrated that we are perfectly prepared to stand aside and watch you fail, as we just did in Tikrit. But if you do reform, we are prepared to make success possible for you."

And in that way, [American] policy in Tikrit—no support before, more support after—might, one hopes, be part of a leverage campaign to bring about difficult reforms in the Iraqi government and military.

Why should the Iraqis take risks to do what the Americans are asking when they can just turn to the Iranians instead?

Gordon: ISIS has reportedly set up booby traps and IEDs in the city, as well as positioned snipers on rooftops. Is this a challenge similar to those the U.S. faced early in the Iraq War, like in the fight for Fallujah in 2004, where fighting in a city is difficult even with more troops and strong air support?

Biddle: What ISIS has been doing is pretty typical of the way non-state militaries defend in cities. And this is long understood to be a very hard form of warfare. It’s not hugely surprising that less well-trained government military forces—the Shiite militias in particular—with limited material support, would find it tough going in urban terrain against an opponent who’s able to do the usual panoply of urban warfare, defensive tactics to slow down an offensive.

Gordon: Can you tell me about the Iraqi factions involved in the fight? Prime Minister Abadi requested the strikes, but Tikrit is in a heavily Sunni area, andThe New York Times reports that some Shiite militias have pulled out to protest American involvement.

Biddle: Public reporting on the Tikrit offensive suggested that the overwhelming majority of the combatant strength that the government committed initially was from a series of Shiite militias that had been funded, supported, and advised, if not commanded, by the Iranians. The Iraqi government has said that there were also Sunni tribal forces participating with the government in the offensive. That constellation of forces made some progress against outlying villages and in the approaches to Tikrit, but once they got into the heart of the urban battlefield, they suffered very heavy casualties and failed to make much progress.

Gordon: What about Iran’s role? How crucial is Iran to the fight, and is there some jockeying between Iran and the U.S. over influence in this fight?

Biddle: There’s clearly a great degree of jockeying for influence. For a collection of reasons, the Iranians have decided to offer assistance to the Iraqi government with many fewer strings than [American] aid. [The United States] wants the Iraqis to reform in exchange for aid. The Iranians are willing to provide aid without the reform. And that, in turn, seriously undermines [American] leverage for getting the reform [they] want. Why should the Iraqis take risks to do what the Americans are asking when they can just turn to the Iranians instead?

Both America and Iran want ISIS defeated. [They] have very different ideas about how it should be done. And the Iraqi government is in a position where, in principle, it can play the two supporters off against each other to get what the Iraqis want.

(Related: Keeping Iraq Unified Will Be Nearly Impossible)

Gordon: Bigger picture: American airstrikes against ISIS started in the summer. Has ISIS lost territory? Are the Kurds and the Iraqi government making gains?

Biddle: They’ve lost some territory. I think, to a first approximation, the best characterization of the war is a stalemate: ISIS has gained a bit of ground in some places; they’ve lost some ground in other places. Most of the areas in which they’ve lost ground have been areas of mixed sectarian demography. ISIS has shown very little ability to take and hold Shiite-populated areas.

Their expansion in June was very, very rapid—and then it ground to a halt at more or less the geographic limits of Sunni Iraq. Since mid-summer, certainly, the battle lines have not changed radically. Places like Baiji [an Iraqi city taken back from ISIS in June] have changed hands several times, but in spite of some degree of dynamic change in particular locations the larger context of the war hasn’t changed very much. You’ve got, to a first approximation, deadlock.

Gordon: What should we look for over the coming days and weeks? Is an attack on Mosul the next goal?

Biddle: Well, I think the next goal is to take Tikrit! At this point, if the Iraqi government fails even with U.S. assistance, it’s a black eye for both the Iraqis and the Americans. There’s a certain degree of risk associated with the policy we’re pursuing in Tikrit. If [America] helps and then it fails anyway, then there’s absolutely no reason for Iraq to comply with American preferences and make risky reforms. So if the United States is going to pursue this policy, it’s very important that the offensive succeed, and that Tikrit actually fall.