Thursday, March 26, 2015

U.S. Airstrikes on ISIS in Tikrit Prompt Boycott by Shiite Fighters
New York Times
MARCH 26, 2015

AL RASHID AIR BASE, Iraq — By Day 2 of the American airstrike campaign against militants holed up in Tikrit, the mission appeared beleaguered on several fronts on Thursday: Thousands of Shiite militiamen boycotted the fight, others threatened to attack any Americans they found, and Iraqi officials said nine of their fighters had been accidentally killed in an airstrike.

In Washington, American military leaders insisted that things were going according to plan. They said that they were stepping into the Tikrit fight only after the Iranian- and militia-led advance on the city had stalled after three weeks, and that they welcomed working solely with Iraqi government forces.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of the United States Central Command, told a Senate hearing on Thursday that no Shiite militias remained in Tikrit.

While the withdrawal of Iranian-led Shiite militias was one of the preconditions for the Americans to join the fight against the Islamic State in Tikrit, the sudden departure of three of the major groups risked leaving the Iraqi ground forces short-handed, especially if other Shiite militiamen also abandoned the fight.

The three militia groups, some of which had Iranian advisers with them until recently, pulled out of the Tikrit fight to protest the American airstrikes, which began late Wednesday night, insisting that the Americans were not needed to defeat the extremists in Tikrit.

Too great or abrupt a withdrawal by militia forces, analysts said, could complicate the entire Iraqi counteroffensive. Even with the militias involved, officials said the current pro-government force would not be large enough to eventually help take Mosul back from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Top officials at the Pentagon appeared to think that it would not be easy to retake even Tikrit without Iranian help. “It’s going to require the kind of hammer-and-anvil approach of ground forces forcing ISIL to respond in ways that they’re targetable by air power,” one Defense Department official said. “But we’re less than 24 hours into it.”

Another official, asked if he was worried that the United States now owned the Tikrit operation, said, “Yes. This was a calculated risk, but it’s one that had to be taken.” Both officials spoke on grounds of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Together, the four Shiite groups that objected to the American air role already represent more than a third of the 30,000 fighters on the government side in the offensive against the Islamic State, analysts said.

“We don’t trust the American-led coalition in combating ISIS,” said Naeem al-Uboudi, the spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the three groups which said it would withdraw from the front line around Tikrit. “In the past, they have targeted our security forces and dropped aid to ISIS by mistake,” he said.

One of the leaders of the biggest militias in the fight, the Badr Organization, also criticized the American role and said his group, too, might pull out.

“We don’t need the American-led coalition to participate in Tikrit. Tikrit is an easy battle, we can win it ourselves,” said Mueen al-Kadhumi, who is one of the Shiite militia group’s top commanders.

“We have not yet decided if we will pull out or not,” he said. The Badr Organization’s leader, Hadi al-Ameri, was shown on Iraqi television leading the ground fight in Tikrit on Thursday.

The office of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Thursday night that he went personally to Tikrit, presumably to persuade Mr. Ameri to keep his fighters in the field.

The Badr Organization fields the largest cohesive ground force in the conflict, and its withdrawal from Tikrit would be potentially catastrophic, according to Wafiq al-Hashimi, the head of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies.

“Dr. Abadi rushed into this decision to liberate Tikrit with the Americans without taking time to work out a compromise among all these groups and the Americans, most of whom have a lot of disputes with the Americans,” Mr. Hashimi said.

Another Iranian-aligned Shiite militia group reacted with defiance and threats against the Americans.

“We are staying in Tikrit, we are not leaving and we are going to target the American-led coalition in Tikrit and their creation, ISIS,” said Akram al-Kabi, the leader of the Nujabaa Brigade, a powerful militia that has previously sent fighters to Syria on behalf of the Bashir al-Assad government there.

His remarks raised the possibility that the group would use antiaircraft fire against coalition warplanes, using Iraqi fighting positions.

On Thursday night, an airstrike on the village of Alvu Ajeel, on the edge of Tikrit, killed six Shiite militiamen, as well as three federal policemen, one of them a colonel, according to a spokesman for the Iraqi military’s Salahuddin Operations Command. The strike was thought to have been carried out by the United States.

The spokesman, who would not give his name because of official policy, described it as a “friendly fire” episode.

A Pentagon spokesman said he could not confirm the event. “We review all allegations and investigate those found credible,” said Col. Steve Warren, director of Defense Press Operations.

It was not known if the militiamen who were killed in the friendly fire episode belonged to Al Nujabaa or another group.

The American airstrikes in Tikrit began late on Wednesday night and continued for eight and a half hours, subsiding at dawn on Thursday, when Iraq’s handful of Russian-made fighter jets took over from this base on the outskirts of Baghdad and further bombed Tikrit in a succession of daytime raids, Iraqi officials said.

The other groups that announced they would boycott the Tikrit operation were Qatab Hizbullah, which like Asaib Ahl al-Haq is closely aligned and supported by Iran, and the Peace Brigade, the latest name for a militia made of up followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, previously known as the Mahdi Army.

Mr. Sadr, whose troops fought bitter battles against the Americans during much of the Iraq war, said his group was pulling out because, “The participation of the so-called international alliance is to protect ISIS on the one hand, and to confiscate the achievements of the Iraqis on the other hand.”

Since March 2, Islamic State forces in Tikrit have been under attack by the Iraqi militias, collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Committees, and regular Iraqi military forces, accompanied at times by Iranian military advisers.

Still, a much smaller force of Islamic State fighters has been able to hold them off in a few areas of the city for almost four weeks.

In recent days, despite the claims of self-sufficiency made by militia commanders, Iraqi military officials said American airstrikes were needed to break the deadlock.

The militias who were withdrawing did not say they were quitting their positions in the Tikrit area altogether, or in adjoining areas of Salahuddin Province, just returning to their nearby bases and boycotting the front-line advance.

Staff Gen. Anwer Hamid, the commander of the Iraqi Air Force, said that the American airstrikes would continue, with Americans concentrating their attacks during the night for operational reasons.

“Their role in this fighting is very important to us,” he said. “They have a high number of aircraft and they have good capabilities, they can really help us.”

Rod Nordland reported from Al Rashid Air Base, and Helene Cooper from Washington. An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Salahuddin Province, Falih Hassan from Baghdad, and Peter Baker from Washington.

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