The Cable

U.S. Officials: Tikrit Offensive Not About Countering Iran’s Influence

U.S. officials told lawmakers on Thursday that a new bombing campaign against Islamic State positions in the Iraqi city of Tikrit is not designed to counter Iran’s growing clout in the country, but to prevent another tactical victory for the Sunni terrorist group, which has fended off an Iraqi offensive on the city for weeks.

Volunteer Shiite fighters, known as the Popular Mobilisation units, who support the Iraqi government forces in the combat against the Islamic State (IS) group fire a Howitzer artillery canon in the village of Awaynat near the city of Tikrit 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 2014. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteer Shiite fighters, known as the Popular Mobilisation units, who support the Iraqi government forces in the combat against the Islamic State (IS) group fire a Howitzer artillery canon in the village of Awaynat near the city of Tikrit 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 2014. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama administration officials told lawmakers on Thursday that a new bombing campaign against Islamic State positions in the Iraqi city of Tikrit is not designed to counter Iran’s growing clout in the country, but to prevent another tactical victory for the Sunni terrorist group, which has fended off an Iraqi offensive on the city for weeks.

“It’s within the Iraqi interest and the coalition’s interest to be successful in Tikrit because we don’t want to have another success for Daesh or ISIL,” Brig. Gen. Michael Fantini told members the House Foreign Affairs Committee in response to questions about the intent of the new air campaign.

Fantini’s claim runs counter to a report in the New York Times stating that American warplanes began bombing the strategic city on Wednesday in order to “seize the initiative from Iran.”

“Taking back Tikrit is important, but it gives us an opportunity to have our half of the operation win this one,” an unnamed U.S. official told the newspaper.

The United States had been on the sidelines in the fight for Tikrit for three weeks as Iraq’s popular mobilization forces, made up of Shiite militiamen guided by Iranian advisers, led the offensive. President Barack Obama approved the airstrikes after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi requested help, but only on the condition that Iranian-supported Shiite militias drawdown to give a larger role to Iraqi security forces.

When asked if the purpose of the new bombing campaign was to prevent the United States from being “marginalized by the Iranians,” Fantini said “no.”

“Iraqis came back and asked for support. We adjudicated that decision to the highest levels and decided to engage there,” he said.

During the hearing, lawmakers raised concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the country as it provides on-the-ground direction and assistance to Baghdad in the effort to liberate towns under IS control. John Allen, the State Department’s point man on countering the Islamic State militant group, said Tehran’s influence in the country remains unclear.

“I don’t think we have a full and complete picture on Iran’s role,” he said. “There seems to have been some organizational support to the Shia elements … some direct fire support as well. How much command and control they were exerting as opposed to how much the Shia militia elements … were exerting I think remains ultimately to be determined.”

On Thursday, Iraqi officials said that American-led airstrikes pummeled IS targets for eight and a half hours and paused at dawn to allow Iraqi flown fighter jets to take over.

Allen made clear that U.S. involvement in the fight to take back Tikrit isn’t going to let up anytime soon.

“The United States is deeply involved in this operation now,” he said. “We’re deeply involved because it is consistent with our relationship with Iraq overall.”

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

Tags: Iran, Iraq

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