March 17, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State After Tikrit
The symbolism is as striking as it is ominous. During the fighting between combined Iraqi security forces and the Islamic State in Tikrit, the tomb of former dictator Saddam Hussein was destroyed, and posters of Saddam have been replaced with images of Shi’a militia leaders, and even Iranian general Qasim Sulaymani. It would be hard to conceive of a more definitive stamp on the fall of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Iraq than the images now coming from his hometown.
The Iraqi forces have retaken nearly all of Tikrit, with an unknown but likely not large number of Islamic State fighters reportedly holding out in the center of the city. That the group would militarily lose in Tikrit was never in doubt, given the advantages the Iraqi security forces have in numbers, air cover, and equipment. What remains very much in doubt is if the victory in Tikrit will turn into sectarian fighting that benefits only the Islamic State. Only by turning the current contest—which the group will eventually lose, though at a tremendous cost to Iraqi security forces and civilians alike—into a sectarian battle can the group hope to reverse its demise. To do so, it will seek to create a sense of Saddam’s revenge, by blurring the distinction between Iraqi and Iranian Shi’a and reigniting the Iraq-Iran war along sectarian—not national—lines. It will need the help of Shi’a militias to achieve this.
The destruction of Saddam’s tomb will have nowhere near the same effect on the Sunni as the 2006 destruction of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra had on the Shi’a—a bombing that led to a full-blown sectarian war within days. The Islamic State hasn’t won over Sunni support so much as it absorbed a decade of Sunni resentment over mistreatment by the Shi’a-dominated government; anger at the toppling of Saddam’s tomb won’t automatically result in increased support for the Islamic State, especially because the group’s preference for being feared over being admired will prove to be problematic as the group continues to lose ground. The danger lies in what the Shi’a militia and Iranian advisors do in the aftermath of Tikrit. A systematic campaign of Shi’a reprisals and crimes against Sunni would frame the fight as an ‘us-versus-them’ battle, with the Islamic State finally becoming the Sunni ‘us.’
The concern is that some of the Popular Mobilization Units, the term for Shi’a militias fighting against the Islamic State, have well-documented histories of sectarian atrocities and crimes. Already in the Tikrit campaign, pictures have surfaced on Twitter of Shi’a militiamen posing with severed heads of alleged Islamic State fighters—hardly the best way to counter a group most reviled for its infamous beheadings. It will take consistent and strong leadership from the Prime Minister-level down to the militia battalion commanders to maintain discipline and avoid the sectarian spectacles that the Islamic State craves. The Iraqi security forces, especially the militias, will need to clearly differentiate between Sunni civilians and Islamic State fighters as they regain control of Tikrit and move on to other cities, with Mosul being the largest and most difficult goal. If they fail to do so, they will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and immeasurably worsen the country’s prospects while improving those of the Islamic State.
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