Iran has taken a leading role in the Iraqi military’s largest offensive yet to reclaim territory from the Islamic State. The Operation to retake Tikrit began yesterday (Monday)
According to a US military official, as well as supplying drones, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard force has fighters on the ground with Iraqi units, mostly operating artillery and rocket batteries. Iraqi Shiite militias closely allied with Iran are also heavily involved.
The head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani arrived two days ago and was on the ground near Tikrit advising Iraqi field commanders, the Fars news agency reported on Monday.
The WSJ report: The offensive is a test of Iraqi security forces’ fitness for the much more daunting challenge of recapturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
It has also thrown a new spotlight on Shiite Iran’s role in assisting Shiite-dominated Iraq to regain control of large parts of the country taken by the Sunni radical group Islamic State. Tehran has wielded increasing influence over Iraq’s military affairs after Iraqi security forces proved unable to contain the Islamic State onslaught that began in summer.
The U.S. and Iran have both steered clear of each other’s operations in Iraq, according to U.S. officials. In general, when Shiite militias are involved in a military operation, the U.S. doesn’t provide support.
Having an overwhelmingly Shiite force move on a Sunni city could exacerbate sectarian divisions in a country that some fear is already sliding toward a breakup. The Pentagon has frequently warned Iran to tread carefully in its assistance to Iraq to avoid reigniting a religious-based civil war.
At the Pentagon, Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, said the U.S. wasn’t providing assistance in the Tikrit operation. The U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State hasn’t conducted airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces and didn’t provide advice in planning the attack.
“We are fully aware of the operation, but the Iraqis did not request our support for it,” Col. Warren said. “Our presence in Iraq is at the request of the Iraqi government. We are there to advise them, to assist them, to support them, when they ask for it.”
Col. Warren wouldn’t comment on Iranian support for the operation. But U.S. officials said one of the key reasons the Iraqis didn’t ask for U.S. help was because they were getting it from Iran.