The good news in Iraq is that the Iraqi army, with outside assistance, was finally able to dislodge ISIS from the city of Tikrit last week in what is easily the paramilitary group’s worst defeat since its major Iraqi offensive began early last year. It’s almost always better to win a battle than to lose one; I think even Pyrrhus of Epirus would have agreed that he preferred to win the Battle of Asculum than to lose it, even though it cost his army dearly. This is especially true when fighting an enemy as steeped in the aura of inevitability as the pretend caliphate, where a big defeat can really put a dent in their propaganda. The mass graves that have been found inside Tikrit over the past couple of days, which may contain as many as 1700 bodies of Iraqi soldiers slaughtered by ISIS fighters, speaks to the importance of defeating ISIS there as an end all unto itself.
The bad news is that, like for Pyrrhus at Asculum, the way the Iraqis won Tikrit may have lasting negative implications for its effort to win both the war against ISIS and the struggle to reunify Iraq once ISIS is out of the picture. Everything about the operation to retake Tikrit was handled poorly: the initial plans for the campaign, the wild shift in tactics in the middle of the campaign, and the post-campaign management of the city. Most of the problem comes down to one inconvenient fact: the Iraqi military probably isn’t capable of beating ISIS on its own yet, without considerable support from paramilitary militias and US air power. Baghdad imagined that it would be able to liberate Tikrit by relying on those militias, along with Iranian assistance, to bolster their own troops, and they wound up with an embarrassingly stalled advance and mounting casualties. In a bit of a panic, Baghdad turned to the US and asked for airstrikes against ISIS positions in Tikrit, which the US was apparently willing to supply under one condition: that the militias and Iranian advisers be sidelined. The militias then made Iraqi PM Haidar al-Abadi’s decision for him, voluntarily pulling themselves out of the fight to protest his decision to ask the Americans for aid.
The militia boycott didn’t last, after Najaf’s influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged their leaders to rejoin the fight but to stop acting independently of the army and ultimately Abadi. The city was liberated, which has to be a little embarrassing for the militias and the Iranians since it only fell after US air power got involved. Still, the fact remains that the Iraqis wouldn’t have even been in the fight if it hadn’t been for the militias, particularly the more powerful Shiʿa groups, which puts them and their Iranian backers (despite Sistani’s admonitions that they should get with the national program) in a position of influence over Baghdad. And that’s a real problem, as the aftermath of Tikrit’s liberation clearly showed.
Reports say that militia fighters entered the city and acted more like a conquering 13th century Mongolian horde than a national army. They looted whatever they could find, burned houses to the ground, and executed in mob fashion anyone suspected of being involved with ISIS. The army was busy trying to defuse all the IEDs that were left behind by fleeing ISIS fighters so that residents could return to the city, and meanwhile the militias were apparently doing their best to make sure there would be no city left to which they could return. And the Iraqi army’s inability and/or refusal to clamp down on the lawlessness speaks volumes about its willingness and/or capacity to stand up to those militias when push comes to shove. There has been some effort to blame the destruction solely on Sunni paramilitaries who were either taking revenge against suspected ISIS collaborators or taking advantage of the chaos to advance some tribal rivalries, but come on. There are certainly Sunni forces among the various militia groups (which are collectively known as the Popular Mobilization), but their numbers are dwarfed by the Shiʿa. If the Shiʿa militias had any interest in tamping the violence down, it would have been tamped down.
Anyway, whether the perpetrators of the Tikrit violence were Sunni, Shiʿa, or both is almost beside the point. The fight to defeat ISIS and reunify Iraq will depend on restoring Baghdad’s control over a part of the country that was already in rebellion before ISIS swept in, and that means national reconciliation, not uncontrolled paramilitary gangs dispensing mob justice at their whim. What happens when the fight moves to Mosul? What if the Popular Mobilization militias decide not to participate, will the Iraqi army be able to stand on its own? If they do participate, can the army prevent the same mayhem that marred the aftermath of Tikrit from happening on a much grander scale in Mosul? Can these guys co-exist alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga, who are going to inevitably be a part of the campaign against ISIS as it moves further north? The bottom line is that, unless Baghdad can wrest ultimate control of this war away from all the various players — Iran, the US, the Kurds, Sunni militias, and Shiʿa militias — it doesn’t have a prayer of coming out of this fight with its country intact, and that means that even if ISIS goes away, the underlying problem will just continue.