US continues airstrikes in Tikrit despite involvement of Iranian-backed Shiite militias

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Qassem Soleimani with his bodyguards near the frontlines of Tikrit

 

The US military continues to launch airstrikes in Tikrit against the Islamic State despite the presence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Claims, including those from US military commanders, that the militias have withdrawn are incorrect, and have even been rebutted by a Pentagon spokesman.

On the first day of airstrikes, which began on March 25, the US-led coalition launched 17 strikes, according to US Central Command. Between the morning of March 26 and the morning of March 27, the US and allied nations launched three additional airstrikes in Tikrit.

The US approved the strikes against the Islamic State after receiving assurances from the Iraqi government that the Shiite militias had withdrawn from Tikrit and that the ground operation would be led by the Iraqi military, and not Iranian generals and their militia proxies.

“Preconditions for us to provide support were that the Iraqi government had to be in charge of this operation. We had to know exactly who was on the ground,” General Lloyd Austin, the commander of US Central Command, told Congress on March 26, according to Military Times.

Austin also wrongly claimed that the the militias had left the Tikrit battlespace.

“The Shiite militias that were there have pulled back from that area,” Austin said.

Austin’s statement was contradicted the next day, when Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren briefed the press. Warren claimed that most of the Shiite militias have withdrawn from Tikrit.

“These are primarily the Shia militia units that we had no interest in being on the battlefield in the first place,” Warren continued. “These are the Shia militia that are clearly linked or often infiltrated by Iran, so their departure from the battlefield is welcome.”

Yet the Department of Defense news article that summarized Warren’s briefing opens by stating, “Several thousand regular Iraqi security forces and troops from the Popular Mobilization Forces [Committee] have resumed their offensive operations on the ground in Tikrit …”

The leadership of the Popular Mobilization Committee is closely tied to Iran and its commander is a designated terrorist. The unit, which was established in June 2014 after the Iraqi Army and police collapsed as the Islamic State advanced in multiple provinces the overarching command for all of the Shiite militias.

The Popular Mobilization Committee is led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a former commander in the Badr Organization who was listed by the US government as Specially Designated Global Terrorist in July 2009. The US government described Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, as “an advisor to Qassem Soleimani,” the commander of the Qods Force, the external operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Soleimani has been visiting the Shiite militias fighting on the Tikrit front, and is said to be directing the operation. [See LWJ report, US sanctions Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades and Qods Force adviser, and Threat Matrix report, Iranian general at the forefront of the Tikrit offensive.]

In addition to leading the Popular Mobilization Committee, Muhandis is also said to direct the operations of Kata’ib Imam Ali (Imam Ali Brigade) as well as command the Hezbollah Brigades. The New York Times reported on March 26 that the Hezbollah Brigades and Asaib al Haq, another Iranian-supported milita, have withdrawn from the fight in Tikrit. But Asaib al Haq issued an official statement that same day saying it would remain in the area but would not enter the city if the US was conducting airstrikes.

Other Shiite militias that are continuing to fight in Tikrit include Kata’ib Sayyed al Shuhada, Harakat Nujaba, and Saraya Khorasani. All of these militias are closely linked to Iran and Qods Force.

Kata’ib Sayyed al Shuhada is led by by Mustafa al Sheibani, a dangerous terrorist who previously commanded what the US military called the Sheibani Network. Sheibani was directed to return to Iraq by Qods Force in 2010 as US forces prepared to exit the country.

Harakat Nujaba is led by Akram Abas al Kabi, the military commander of Asaib al Haq who is listed by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2009. Harakat Nujaba was created in 2013 to funnel fighters from Asaib al Haq and the Hezbollah Brigades into Syria to support President Bashir al Asad.

Both Sheibani and Kabi have been directly or indirectly linked to EFP, IED, mortar, rocket, and small arms attacks that killed hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq up until December 2011.

Saraya Khorasani is led by Ali al Yasiri, who is also closely tied to Iran. An Iranian general who was advising Saraya Khorasani was killed by an Islamic State sniper late last year.

US military commanders have remained steadfast in their support of air operations in Tikrit despite the presence and overt involvement of Shiite militias that are directed by Iran, and militia commanders who are responsible for killing US servicemen as recently as three years ago.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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9 Comments

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Debka has claimed that Soleimani flew into Yemen last night to lead a possible counter-offensive.
    //debka.com/article/24494/Iranian-general-in-Sanaa-to-organize-Yemen-rebel-counter-offensive-for-Saudi-led-attacks

    I highly doubt it. That would be reckless and desperate on the Iranians part. He would be a fat target for marauding fighter jets from the Arab coalition or even US Navy.

    • mike merlo says:

      thanks for the link. So Soleimani thinks he’s a ‘Water Walker.’ This just keeps getting better & better

  • mike merlo says:

    this is geo-politics as practiced by Sesame Street

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    As per the Iranian U.S. Commander-in-Chief Valerie Jarrett.

  • Baldurdasche says:

    There’s a welter of BS deriving from the “stalled” operation at Tikrit – where what were two weeks ago described as a “couple of hundred” ISIS fighters are now holed-up in the city and making things expensive for the military drive-to-completion.

    This outcome is largely as was foretold by the good guys, waiting the green light for the BIG run on Mosul. They will however have top solve Tikrit before they do that. it seems that destroying the city to save it might now be the best expression of ‘conventional wisdom’.

    It remains to be seen however if Iraqi forces – the regulars, as opposed to the Shiite militias – can do any better with the help of a tactical airforce.

    Assuming that all goes well it leaves the largely Shiite government, and its relatively unatritted militias, still controlling the country and the Sunnis still in a nascent insurgency. in short no problem solved, except ISIS, perhaps.

    Maybe a little military-inspired regime change might do some good, or a Kurdish drive on Baghdad. Nothing of any lasting value however.

  • Eric says:

    A protagonist voice would endeavor to point out that the Pentagon press statements claim that Shite militias have pulled out of some areas of the fighting in Tikrit, while Iraqi army units are actively engaged in the offensive. And the US continues air strikes against ISIS in Tikrit.
    Unless there is a map added to this article which pinpoints US strikes versus Iranian militias, ISIS elements, and Iraqi forces, there is nothing that specifically contradicts the pentagons claim that US air strikes are supporting Iraqi regular forces and Iraqi regular forces only. Iranian militias are still active in Tikrit, but perhaps only in parts of the city not being reduced by US air strikes.
    I am not hostile to the premise of the article, nor am I susceptible to the implication that pentagon statements which apparently contradict each other is equal to an attempt to mislead Americans on what is being done by the US in Tikrit.
    And I for one, would not mind one bit if US air strikes and Iranian militias were combined against ISIS on the same piece of ground at the same time. We need not be concerned about hitting friendlies during such an operation, because the Iranian militias are not friendly to the US.
    We are there to oppose ISIS and to support Iraq. While US resolve and motives to support Iraq may be questionable, Iran’s motives and resolve are not. Iraq is intended to be kept weak and under Iran’s control. ISIS is an existential threat to the kind of Iraqi government that suits Iran best.
    Obama pulled the US out of Iraq, creating a power vacuum the Iranians filled. The one-sided Shia government created the oppression of Sunnis that fueled the explosive growth of ISIS. The Shia government in Baghdad is opposed to US ground forces because Iran says so. Obama got re-elected for bringing the troops home. Now Iraq is a Lose-Lose proposition for the USA, and it is a Win-Win situation for Iran.
    I don’t read into that much detail what apparent contradictions can be found in pentagon press statements. The off-the-chart-wrong stream of information from Jen Psaki and her White House crew have inured me to the inconsistency of message to national media. If is is contagious to the JCS, it is hard to act surprised.

  • jayc says:

    Gotta love the persians. Soleimani acts like the second coming of you know who. The shiites talk big but act small. I remember a man on the street interview with an Iraqi after the first Gulf war, which was a few years after the 1981-1988 Iraq-Iran war. The old man was looking at a blown out brdige. He said, “You know, the Iranians tried for 10 years to knock out that bridge…. the Americans did it in ten seconds”

  • Thomas McCabe says:

    In a parallel matter, former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Derek Harvey tweeted last week that an Iraqi Shiite source told him the number of Shia militia dead from the Tikrit offensive so far may be as high as 6,000. (//twitter.com/harvey1021/status/578942965449535488?refsrc=email&s=11) Can anybody confirm the figure? While I would be overjoyed it was true, I suspect it’s exaggerated—if the historically normal ratio of 2-3 wounded for each KIA applies it would mean the Shia militias involved have been pretty much wiped out, which obviously hasn’t happened.

  • Mark says:

    A former spook/intel guy poster at WNU suggested that Solemeini was in Yemen since he disappeared form Tikrit.

    I doubt he used Debka as his source. Probably intuition on his part.

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