March 8, 2015 at 4:34 PM EDT
Iraqi forces have made significant headway against the Islamic State this past week, pushing extremist fighters out of the territory they seized last year. But Iranian troops have joined Iraq's ground offensive, and that's causing a serious rift between Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition. Anne Barnard, who has reported for the New York Times on the rising political tension, joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Baghdad.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Iraqi forces have been making significant headway against ISIS in the last few days, pushing extremist fighters back out of some of the territory they seized last year.
Anne Barnard has been reporting for The New York Times on the fighting and the rising political tension. She joins me via Skype from Baghdad.
So, what is the latest on the Iraqi forces’ efforts to take back some of the ground that ISIS gained last summer?
ANNE BARNARD, Beirut Bureau Chief, The New York Times: Well, tonight, we’re starting to hear reports that they have moved into another village called Abu Ajeel, which is close to Tikrit.
The — the offensive has been going for the last week, perhaps more slowly than expected, but moving steadily ahead.
And there’s about 30,000 troops involved. ISIS has been able to hold out against them in the center of Tikrit but they lost a number of villages around Tikrit and Samarra.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, by some measures, this is a sign of success.
I mean, is the Iraqi military ready for this fight now versus in other times where we had reports of them turning away on the battlefield and fleeing?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, we were out on the front lines the other day.
And we definitely saw, I would say, a new level of organization and enthusiasm.
But I wouldn’t say it’s as much the Iraqi army that is leading the fight as the Shiite paramilitary organization known as the Popular Mobilization Committee, the Shiite militias, which are closely tied to Iran, which are providing the bulk of the fighters.
And there was a call that went out from Shia clerics asking everyone to come and fight ISIS.
And this is basically the vehicle available to quickly mobilize all these people.
HARI SREENIVASAN: With the presence of all these Shia militiamen, how does that affect the relationship between Iraq and the United States?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, it’s really sharpened the tensions, because the Americans have refused to — have not provided airstrikes in this battle, the way they had in previous battles.
When we were on the ground, militia leaders were complaining very bitterly about this, saying that Iran was really the real friend of Iraq and Iran was providing much more significant help throughout this war than the United States.
At the same time, for the Americans, it’s very difficult to work with militias that may have been involved with attacks on American troops during the U.S. occupation here.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, while we hear about these battles taking place, we’re also, in the West, seeing this footage of ISIS forces destroying works of art and places of cultural significance.
Is there anything that can be done to stop that?
ANNE BARNARD: Well, unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done in areas that ISIS is currently controlling.
Some of the leaders of the Iraqi cultural institutions have actually been asking for airstrikes to stop the advances of bulldozers on those sites.
Now, I don’t think the American rules of engagement call for attacking bulldozers.
But, on the other hand, these people say there’s really no other way to stop this at this moment.
Of course, there are other things that can be done and are being worked on now to try to mitigate these kinds of risks by better documenting the very valuable ancient sites that exist all over Iraq.
That is essentially a way to recover objects that might get looted or to reconstruct things later.
But there isn’t much that can be done on the ground.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Anne Barnard of The New York Times joining us via Skype from Baghdad, thanks so much.