MATT BRADLEY in Baghdad and
DION NISSENBAUM in Washington
Updated April 5, 2015 7:26 p.m. ET
Iraqi security forces and their U.S. partners are divided about where to next confront Islamic State after their victory over the extremist group in Tikrit last week. Both hope to capitalize on the momentum to reclaim all of the surrounding province of Salahudeen. The bulk of that effort will focus 25 miles northwest of the provincial capital Tikrit on the refinery city of Beiji, which is partially held by Islamic State forces.
Beyond that, the two sides diverge. American officials say it makes the most sense to push further north toward Islamic State’s de facto capital of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. “It’s what makes tactical and operational sense,” said a U.S. military official. “You secure 50% of Iraq and the majority of populated Iraq, then you push west. You push the enemy back into Syria.”
But Iraqi militias, who cooperated with the government in the battle for Tikrit, plan to head west to rout Islamic State from their positions in cities along the Euphrates River in largely deserted Anbar province. Each option offers benefits and challenges. But the potential for disagreement risks the same kind of strategic dispute that made the month-long battle for Tikrit such a deadly and diplomatically divisive operation.
The Iraqis expect to make a decision within 10 days on where they plan to strike next, said Karim al-Nouri, a spokesman for the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which played a major role in the ground operation to retake Tikrit from the Sunni radical group. An Iraqi lawmaker said they prefer to focus first on Anbar province, which begins at the edge of Baghdad’s western suburbs. Of equal importance to the next military move is how well Baghdad handles the aftermath of the fight in Tikrit. The city was heavily damaged by U.S. airstrikes and a month of intense fighting and then looted by some of the conquering, mostly Shiite militiamen. Though the looting appeared to have died down on Saturday, police officials said members of the Hezbullah Brigades militia were still stealing from homes and shops in the al-Qadisiyah neighborhood north of the city. The Iraqis and Americans have competing objectives. American strategists see capturing Mosul as the first step toward crushing Islamic State.
Iraqis, particularly the mostly Shiite militias who have done the bulk of the fighting, want to beat back the insurgents from the capital and secure another battlefield victory before they turn their attention toward the challenge of Mosul. The Shiite militias prefer to go it alone, without American help, so they can claim the victory for Iraq. “Anbar is important because it is very close to Baghdad,” saidShakwan Abdullah, a member of the security and defense committee in Iraq’s parliament. “Mosul has political and military issues to be fixed first. This is why we prefer to attack Anbar first.”
The primary political hurdle to retaking Mosul—about 250 miles northwest of Baghdad—is that the Iraqi military is still ill-prepared for what is expected to be a difficult and deadly street battle. If it has to rely on Shiite militias, it risks heightening resistance within the staunchly Sunni city.
Hadi al-Ameri, a leading figure in the Shiite militias, said during a victory speech in Tikrit last week that Anbar would be the militia’s next objective. Some militia units have already been dispatched to Anbar from Tikrit, said Ghassan al-Hussaini, a spokesman for the mostly Shiite militia groups known as public mobilization units and a security adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Wherever the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces head next, they will be treading on territory dominated by the country’s Sunni minority—something that could stiffen resistance and raise the risk of sectarian abuses. Iraqi military leaders contend that Anbar already contains the right mix of elements: several large, well-defended Iraqi military bases, veteran Sunni tribesmen who have fought Sunni extremists in the past and remain loyal to Baghdad and an Islamic State presence that was thinned as the insurgent group struggled to defend Anbar. Iraqi forces are also confident they can use the province’s exposed desert geography to their advantage.
“Once Islamic State flees their positions, they will have to resort to the desert. There’s no other place to go,” said Mr. Hussaini. “This makes Islamic State an easy target for security forces.” But if Iraqi forces can recapture Mosul later this year, U.S. military planners say they will be in a much better position to rout Islamic State from the rest of the country. The drive toward Mosul could capitalize on the efforts of Kurdish forces in northern Iraq who have spent the past several weeks methodically severing Islamic State supply routes between Mosul and the militants’ de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, about 250 miles west. American generals warn that Anbar poses a difficult test for Iraqi and U.S. forces. The province’s mostly Sunni population has long incubated extremist groups and they are still fertile ground for Islamic State fighters who seized the capital of Fallujah 15 months ago, months before they took Mosul.
U.S. forces have established a new training operation at al-Asad military base in Anbar Province, where Iraqi military forces have had some success in pushing Islamic State out of smaller places such as al-Karmah, a town of 250,000 once known in the U.S. military as “Bad Karma” because it was so violent. Iraqi and U.S. military planners initially hoped to target Mosul this spring. The U.S. is working to provide Iraqi forces with more sophisticated equipment to deal with the vast array of makeshift explosives Islamic State forces have used to defend themselves, transforming everything from cars to homes into deadly bombs.
Last week’s victory in Tikrit is still fresh, and the diverging tactical perspectives have yet to emerge into open diplomatic confrontation. But neither U.S. nor Iraqi officials want to repeat the kind of discord that complicated and extended the Tikrit operation. Shiite militias with direct backing from Iran initially led the fight against the Sunni extremist Islamic State in Tikrit without notifying the U.S.-led coalition or asking for airstrikes. Neither Iraq’s government nor the militias have released a comprehensive assessment of the casualties they suffered in Tikrit. But U.S. officials say thousands of Iraqis were killed and that the bulk of the suffering could have been avoided had the Iraqis coordinated with the U.S. in advance.
After two weeks of fighting that inflicted heavy casualties on the militias, Baghdad asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes. Iran’s militia allies withdrew partly in anger, and partly at the U.S. insistence that they step aside. But smaller Shiite militias more closely aligned with Baghdad’s government played a central role in seizing central Tikrit. U.S. military officials recognize that they will have to work with the irregular militia forces, even if they do not want to, military officials in Washington said. Iraqi militia leaders agree that the confusion of Tikrit should have been avoided.
“The government is trying to avoid the problem that happened in Tikrit,” said Mr. Hussaini. The militias, Sunni tribal fighters and Iraqi military have established a joint operations command so that Iraq’s sundry anti-Islamic State forces can communicate their needs to the U.S. with a unified voice. Yet Iraqi Shiite militias still appear determined to fight alone without U.S. support. Their focus on Tikrit appears in part to be aimed at securing a morale-boosting victory without the help of foreign airstrikes. It’s a question of pride that U.S. officials worry is interfering with tactical considerations. “Of course, everything depends on the nature of the battle,” said Mr. Hussaini. “But the leadership, they prefer the fight to be purely Iraqi because it tastes better, it has a better impact for the future. It’s a national thing for Iraqis.”