US General: Iranian Presence in Iraq Could Be Beneficial

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Iraqi government forces and allied militias take position in the northern part of Diyala province, bordering Salahuddin province, as they take part in an assault to retake the city of Tikrit from jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIs) group, on March 2, 2015. AFP/Younis al-Bayati

Published Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Iran's role in an Iraqi military offensive to recapture Tikrit could be positive as long as it does not fuel sectarian divisions in the country, the US military's top officer said Tuesday.

The official’s statement comes as Iraqi forces closed in on Tikrit Tuesday on the second day of Baghdad's largest operation yet against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators that Iran's military assistance to Shia pro-government volunteering fighters was nothing new but was carried out in a more open manner this week as Iraqi forces pushed to retake Tikrit from ISIS jihadists.

Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, who has helped coordinate Baghdad's counter-attacks against ISIS since it seized much of northern Iraq in June, was overseeing at least part of the operation, witnesses told Reuters.

With him were two Iraqi paramilitary leaders: the leader of the Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, and Hadi al-Amiri who leads the Badr Organization, a powerful volunteering group.

"(Suleimani) was standing on top of a hill pointing with his hands towards the areas where Islamic State are still operating," said a witness who was accompanying security forces near Albu Rayash, a village about 55 kilometers (35 miles) from Tikrit, captured from ISIS two days ago.

Suleimani’s presence on the front line highlights neighboring Iran's influence over the Shia fighters who have been key to containing ISIS in Iraq.

"This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support," Dempsey said, which came "in the form of artillery" and other aid.

"Frankly, it would only be a problem if it resulted in sectarianism," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

US commanders rarely discuss Iran's activities in Iraq in public, stressing that Washington does not coordinate with Tehran's military in any way — even though the two foes see ISIS as a common enemy.

In an assault launched Monday, officials in Baghdad say a 30,000-strong force has been mobilized to take back Tikrit.

Dempsey said Shia fighters — which are armed by Tehran — account for about two-thirds of the force while Iraqi government army troops make up the remainder.

If the Iraqi army and allied fighters "perform in a credible way" and defeat the jihadists in Tikrit, "then it will in the main have been a positive thing in terms of the counter-ISIL campaign," Dempsey said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

At the same hearing, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged Iraq did not ask for military support from Washington for the Tikrit operation, the largest assault so far by Baghdad against ISIS.

Carter said he shared Dempsey's concerns about sectarian divisions erupting and that Washington was closely monitoring the conduct of the campaign.

"I hope sectarianism does not show its ugly head," Carter said.

The head of US Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, said the American military was not surprised by the Iraqi army's offensive on Tikrit or Iran's role because American surveillance aircraft picked up preparations beforehand.

Austin, who oversees the US-led air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said "we have good overhead imagery and those types of things."

"So, you know, the activity in Tikrit was no surprise," the general said. "I saw this coming many days leading up to this. It was a logical progression of what they've been doing in the east of the country."

The expansion of jihadist groups in Iraq raises questions about the effectiveness of the US anti-terrorism campaign since 2001.

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 using the pretext of “fighting terrorism” and claiming that then-dictator Saddam Hussein owned weapons of mass destruction.

The US invasion that supposedly aimed to eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq — a group that didn't exist in the country until after the invasion — ended up serving as a recruitment tool for jihadist groups and increasing sectarian strife within the country. The war aimed to “free Iraqis” but instead killed at least half a million Iraqis and left the country in total turmoil.

Iraqi forces advance towards Tikrit

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces closed in on Tikrit Tuesday, their progress slowed by jihadist snipers and booby traps, on the second day of Baghdad's largest operation yet against ISIS.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the jihadists who have held Tikrit since June 2014 have been resorting to guerrilla tactics to disrupt the government's advance.

"They are using urban warfare and snipers, so we are advancing in a cautious and delicate way, and we need more time," a lieutenant general on the ground told AFP.

Iraqi forces are moving on Tikrit from three directions. On the southern flank of the offensive, army and police officials said government forces had surrounded and sealed off al-Dour, but had not yet launched an assault on the town, a source in military operations command said.

"We are close to al-Dour, but Daesh is still in the center," the senior officer said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Another large contingent drives from the east and yo the north, they captured a village close to Tikrit, the army said. Units were also moving from a variety of other directions, with military sources saying the plan was to encircle and besiege ISIS fighters in Tikrit.

The jihadist group announced in a radio bulletin Tuesday that a US national from its ranks had carried out a suicide attack against Iraqi forces near Samarra, the other main city in Salahuddin province. The attacker was referred to by his nom de guerre, Abu Dawud al-Amriki.

The Tikrit battle will have a major impact on plans to move further north and recapture Mosul, the largest city under ISIS rule. If the offensive stalls, it will complicate and delay a move on Mosul but a quick victory would give Baghdad momentum.

Iraqi security forces, backed by Kurdish troops, pro-government volunteering fighters, and tribesmen on the ground have managed to regain some ground from ISIS and push them back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala. But they have held most of their strongholds in Salahuddin and taken new territory in the western province of Anbar.

Italy renews its support for Iraq KRG

Italy's foreign minister confirmed his support on Tuesday for the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government and the central Iraqi government in their fight against ISIS.

"The situation in the region is still complicated despite the significant achievements of the peshmerga forces," Paolo Gentiloni said in Rome during a joint press conference with Necirvan Barzani, the PM of Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government.

The Italian minister said that more than two million people have been internally displaced in Iraq due to terror inflicted by ISIS as 1.5 million of them live in the Iraqi KRG.

Gentiloni added that Italy carried out an assistance program valued at about €12 million for those refugees and pledged further Italian military and humanitarian aid to the Kurdish Regional Government.

"This war that we are fighting does not just concern the Kurdish people, but all countries and humanity," Barzani said during the same press conference, as he thanked Italian PM Matteo Renzi for his visit to the region, which took place on Monday.

In late August, Italy, along with Germany, Britain and France, announced that they were giving arm to Iraqi Kurdish security forces in the fight against ISIS militants in northern Iraq, in close coordination with the Baghdad central government.

Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said Italy had earmarked light automatic weapons and ammunition used by the Italian armed forces, as well as arms made in the former Soviet Union and seized at sea during the 1990s Balkan wars, to be sent to Iraq.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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