National Security

Officials: U.S. watching for ethnic cleansing in Tikrit battle in Iraq

In this still image taken from video, soldiers fire towards a target in Tikrit, Iraq on Wednesday, March 11, 2015.
In this still image taken from video, soldiers fire towards a target in Tikrit, Iraq on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. AP

The current battle to wrest the Iraqi city of Tikrit from Islamic State extremists has only token support from Sunni Muslim tribesmen, and the United States is watching closely for signs that Shiite militiamen are abusing local Sunni residents, top U.S. defense officials said at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Only 1,000 Sunni tribesmen are taking part in the battle to recapture Tikrit, while 20,000 members of Shiite militias have converged on the city, the hometown of the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“What we are watching carefully is whether the militias – they call themselves the Popular Mobilization Forces – whether, when they recapture lost territory, whether they engage in acts of retribution and ethnic cleansing,” Dempsey said. “There’s no indication that that is a widespread event at this point, but we’re watching closely.”

Dempsey, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spent three and a half hours defending virtually every aspect of their fight against the Islamic State, which is sometimes known as ISIS or ISIL. The Obama administration is carrying out strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria under a 2001 authorization targeting al Qaida, and the three officials’ appearance was ostensibly to endorse an updated authorization specifically aimed at the Islamic State.

But the hearing went far beyond the specifics of the proposed authorization to details of the current Islamic State fight, including the vital role being played by Iran, whose military representatives are providing the strategic planning for the Tikrit operation, while the United States remains on the sidelines.

Among the details that emerged from the hearing:

– The Tikrit campaign is heavily reliant on Iranian-backed Shiite factions. Dempsey offered this breakdown of the pro-government fighters: 20,000 Shiite militiamen, about 3,000 Iraqi security forces, around 200 defense ministry commandos and 1,000 Sunni tribesmen.

– The officials spelled out six concerns that U.S. officials have about Iran: a proliferation of surrogate and proxy groups in the region’s conflicts, arms trafficking, development of ballistic missile technology, the creation of heavy mines that could be used to close the Strait of Hormuz, the country’s nuclear ambitions, and cyberattacks.

– Dempsey said “we (the United States) own two lines” of a nine-pronged coalition strategy against the Islamic State: “direct action” in the form of air strikes and “partner capacity,” or building up Iraqi national forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Other countries are in charge of addressing issues of governance and countering extremist propaganda, he said.

– The officials wouldn’t be pinned down on details of the authorization for force, dodging repeated questions about the scope of the battle and length of time it would take. The proposed authorization would rule out a large-scale U.S. ground offensive such as those that put tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but would otherwise be flexible on the geographic location of potential targets.

– Kerry blasted a letter written by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and signed by 46 other Republican senators that was addressed to Iran’s supreme leader and suggested that any agreement on Iran’s nuclear program might not survive the Obama administration. Kerry said that nothing similar had been even proposed during his 29 years in the Senate and that the letter violated two centuries of precedent in American diplomacy.

– He rejected insinuations that there was any link between the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and its role in fighting the Islamic State.

– Kerry and his defense counterparts reiterated that the proposed authorization for military force was “ISIL-specific” and that neither it nor current U.S. strategy was focused on helping Syrian rebels topple President Bashar Assad. None of the officials divulged progress on the U.S. effort to build a Syrian militia to fight the Islamic State. Dempsey said “we don’t have that credible partner yet in Syria” and that the United States was taking steps to build one.

– The officials suggested that a new authorization for force against ISIS could cover actions against groups that have pledged allegiance to the neophyte caliphate, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. Such action would be taken only if the groups posed a threat to the United States or a coalition partner.

– No official could offer even a ballpark figure for how long it might take before the Islamic State could be declared defeated; a spinoff debate erupted over the definition of the word “enduring,” one of the words the proposed authorization uses to describe the sort of military commitment that would not be authorized, but which critics have called too vague. Kerry said he didn’t think it would take even a year, but Carter said he wouldn’t guarantee that the fight would be over in three years.

One awkward fact behind the authorization debate is that the administration has stated unequivocally that it would continue its campaign under the 2001 decree for al Qaida should lawmakers reject the new one. Kerry explained that the administrations feels fully authorized because the Islamic State began as al Qaida before it changed its name “and got worse.”