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Tikrit Offensive: Where is the US?


Military vehicles of Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite fighters are seen as they gather at Udhaim dam, north of Baghdad, March 1, 2015.

Military vehicles of Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite fighters are seen as they gather at Udhaim dam, north of Baghdad, March 1, 2015.

The Iraqi operation to take back Tikrit from Islamic State militants is the largest-scale offensive Baghdad has launched against the group. Reports from the region say about 30,000 of Iraq’s military members and militia fighters are participating.

Yet even though the U.S.-led coalition has conducted thousands of airstrikes against the Islamic State group to back up Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground, the Pentagon says the United States and its allies have received no request from Iraq to carry out airstrikes in support of the recent move.

"Right now we are not providing any air power to support the Iraqi operations in the vicinity of Tikrit," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said. "This is an Iraqi fight, an Iraqi government fight.”

But why would Iraqi security forces not want U.S. air power for support?

Michael Weiss, the coauthor of the book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, said the fighting component on the ground in Tikrit is not being led by Iraqi Security Forces.

"It’s being led by Shi'ite militia groups built, trained, controlled by Iran," Weiss said. "The proof in the pudding is that Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran--a designated terrorist organization--was at Camp Speicher rallying the troops.”

A senior U.S. military official acknowledged to VOA Monday that Iranian forces are in Tikrit helping with the offensive, and that as long as the Iranians are there, the U.S. will not get involved.

Weiss accused Washington policy makers of throwing billions of dollars into Iraqi training and equipping, only to "essentially acquiesce to what they know is the Iranian takeover" or "Hezbollahization" of what remains of Iraq’s security forces.

The Iranian presence among Iraqi Shi'ite militias has placed the U.S. in an "awkward" position, according to a senior U.S. military official, but the U.S. has little say in the matter because Iraq ultimately gets to choose who it partners with in the fight against the Islamic State.

"Our only other option is to pack up and leave," the official said. "Sometimes it's better to be in the mix than not."

Weiss fears that even if Islamic State militants could be ousted from Iraq, sectarian violence between Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds could spiral even further out of control.

"The United States has to realize it doesn't have any significant say in the fate of Iraq at this point," Weiss said. "Iran has been in firm control over Iraq's fate for a long time, and now we're just kind of an accomplice to that creeping takeover."

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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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