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Amid IS Fight, Concern Over Iran, Sectarian Divide

As the battle for Tikrit rages between Islamic State militants and Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militias, two major concerns have emerged: the role of Iran and the fear that sectarian divides will grow wider.

Days of fighting around Tikrit have yielded slow progress against Islamic State militants, who have held the city since last June.

''Our troops are now advancing according to the drawn up plan, though there are so many bombs planted by Islamic State militants to hinder our progress,” Iraqi Lieutenant General Abdul Amir al-Zaidi said.

The enemy is the same, but this fight against the militants is different. Above, there is no U.S. support from the air, and on the ground, Iranians are helping Shi'ite militiamen.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Thursday the situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what Gulf states have feared - Iran “taking over” Iraqi forces.

Another fear is sectarian violence. Sunni leaders say the Iraqi government is failing to support them.

“[The government] stands with hands folded towards the Sunni tribes, while it pays heed to and supports the Shi'ite militiamen who came from everywhere to purge the areas occupied by IS militants, while the Sunni tribes don't have weapons,” said Sheik Abdul Madhi al-Smaidaie, the Grand Mufti of Iraq.

“We’ve been down the road of sectarianism in Iraq and it’s important that the government of Iraq not go down that road again,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

In Washington, caution from military leaders is growing.

“We’re watching carefully, and if this becomes an excuse to ethnic cleanse then our campaign has a problem and we’re going to have to make a campaign adjustment,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Those leading the fight have sent mixed messages. U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for the protection of civilians, but he’s also declared, "There is no neutrality in the battle against ISIS.”

Human rights defenders like Joe Stork say a statement like that could be used to justify violence.

“Even very recently we’ve seen these militias carrying out terrible acts in the aftermath of these kinds of operations,” said Stork.

Terrible acts include the demolition of homes and even executions. A graphic mobile phone video emerged on social media this week, but VOA has not been able to verify its authenticity or date. It shows a Sunni boy captured by men wearing uniforms with the Iraqi insignia.

Seconds later, the boy is shot to death.

“There has to be consequences when people carry out these kinds of crimes, and we haven’t seen any of that yet,” said Stork.

As the battle continues for northern Iraq, officials are urging restraint and accountability from Iraqis and Iranians helping in the fight. But they are all aware the sectarian tinderbox could ignite at any moment.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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