Baghdad to Pentagon: Surprise! We’ve Invaded Tikrit!

Iraq has spent months asking the United States for help to fight the Islamic State, but Washington is sitting on the sidelines during the battle for Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Members of the Iraqi security forces heading from the city of Samarra north of Baghdad drive towards al-Dawr area south of Tikrit to launch an assault against the Islamic State group (IS) on February 28, 2015. Government forces have attempted and failed several times to wrest back Tikrit -- the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein -- since losing it to IS in June last year. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi security forces, backed by a combustible mix of Shiite militias, Sunni tribes, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and Iranian advisors, launched an operation early Monday morning, March 2, to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State.

The ground forces are reportedly being helped by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets.

On the sidelines for now? The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, which the Defense Department says is providing no support to the Tikrit operation. After conducting more than 2,000 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, the absence of the United States from the Tikrit fight is telling and speaks to how little influence the United States may have on this complicated battlefield.

That the Iraqis planned to retake Tikrit was well known, as thousands of troops and Shiite militia members had gathered in the nearby city of Samarra to prepare for the offensive. But a U.S. official described “a little bit of surprise” at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command that the operation was launched Monday and said there is little question that it is being influenced by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders.

Qassem Suleimani, the once-secretive head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, arrived on the front lines two days ago to advise Iraqi commanders, the Iranian Fars News Agency reported.

Suleimani’s leadership and the Shiite militias’ outsized role in taking back Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a Sunni stronghold, has some U.S. officials worried.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Iran clearly has a “big interest in the outcome of things in Iraq.” Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, he predicted Tehran will continue to exert influence over Shiite militias in Iraq to target the Islamic State.

But Clapper also acknowledged that Iran does not have total control over the Shiite militiamen, many of whom are nationalist Iraqis who “have long harbored resentment of the U.S. presence” in Baghdad and beyond.

“As long as the Iranians perceive that we are doing what comports with their objective — which is eliminate ISIL — as long as we’re on a sort of parallel course there, they’ll do what they can to control the militias,” Clapper said, using an acronym for the Islamic State extremist group.

The Iraqi fighters who launched the Tikrit offensive are a mix of government security forces and Sunni tribesmen, but the majority are from Shiite militias, according to a second U.S. official familiar with the broad outlines of the mission.

He called the mix “cause for concern” in a battle where sectarian tensions already run high. Tikrit and the rest of Salahaddin province are overwhelmingly Sunni, but the official said some Shiites recently have moved in from fierce fighting in neighboring Diyala province, which borders Iran.

That U.S. official did not know whether Baghdad made clear its plans for the offensive before it was launched, but said Iraqi leaders have for weeks discussed ways to take back Tikrit from the Islamic State. He said the combat was not expected to end quickly, noting that military operations that seek to prevent civilian casualties generally drag out for days, if not weeks.

It’s the third attempt to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State, which seized the town in June. Early reports Monday indicated that some Islamic State fighters had been dislodged from their locations on the outskirts of town, but the advancing troops also suffered casualties from gunfire and roadside bombs.

“We were aware of the operation before it started,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters at the Pentagon, but he would not provide any details about the level of coordination that may have taken place between the U.S. and the Iraqi governments.

The Iraqis did not request any air support from the United States, so it’s not providing any, he said.

“This is a sovereign nation, a sovereign government. Iraq gets to decide what it wants to coordinate on,” Warren said.

As for whether there are U.S. surveillance drones flying over the city, Warren said he would not comment on specific intelligence missions.

There are reportedly close to 30,000 fighters involved in the battle for Tikrit, with an estimated 15,000 from the Iraqi security forces. The United States has said it needs 20,000 to 25,000 fighters to retake Mosul, a northern Iraqi city that is four times larger than Tikrit.

The first U.S. official told Foreign Policy that it’s unclear how many fighters are involved and whether Shiite militias represent the majority. He noted that there are only an estimated 2,500 Iraqi security forces currently being trained by U.S. troops.

That casts some doubt on whether Baghdad could muster tens of thousands of forces to the Tikrit fight.

Washington’s back-row view of the Tikrit battle comes after a week of damage control by the United States to contain Baghdad’s anger after a Centcom official detailed sensitive plans for a possible springtime offensive on Mosul. Centcom initially predicted that the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State could start in April or May, which angered Iraqi officials who were sensitive to appearing not in control of the military campaign.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry gave the strongest rebuttal of that timeline to date, telling ABC’s This Week, “That has been contradicted, and I think walked back. And there are a number of different options out there, so nobody should count on what they’ve read or what they’ve seen. This will happen when we are ready. It will happen on the coalition’s schedule. And it will happen when there is confidence that it will be successful.”

During that Feb. 19 background briefing with the Centcom official, a reporter asked about the role Iran is playing on the ground in Iraq.

“We don’t have exact numbers, but we know that there’s an Iranian presence in Iraq,” the official said. “But thus far, because we have a common goal, and there’s a common interest there.”

He added: “We have been working with the government of Iraq to make sure that they understand that there are certainly things out there that we cannot tolerate — i.e., the misuse of Shia militias and those types of things in an inappropriate way.”

Seán D. Naylor contributed to this report.

Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen