Iranian special forces, backed by Iraqi Shiite militias, are poised to finish pushing the Islamic State out of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit as soon as this week. That would be Baghdad’s first major victory over the militants — and it may be won without any direct U.S. military involvement whatsoever.
Deadly American airstrikes, including at least seven this weekend, are still vital to routing the extremists in western and northern Iraq and have cleared the way for security forces to move into other areas. But it is a truism among Middle Eastern nations that battlefield bravery wins the wasta — Arabic for “influence” — both in the military and in politics.
That has been uncomfortably evident as American and Iraqi officials watch Iran do something the Obama administration has been unwilling to: send combat soldiers into a major Iraqi city to battle the Islamic State on the ground. Iraqi security forces — made up of Shiite and Sunni troops — are fighting in Tikrit too, but in far smaller numbers. American warplanes, at least so far, haven’t flown any missions in support of the ground push in the Sunni-dominated city.
The battle of Tikrit is widely seen as a proving ground for an upcoming offensive in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, an Islamic State stronghold, and Shiite militias are already gearing up for that fight. Some Iraqi fighters and leaders also are asking for air power in Tikrit, although an American military official said Monday that there currently are no plans for the Pentagon to approve U.S. strikes, given Washington’s stated reluctance to help forces loyal to Iran.