The fragility of the makeshift alliance battling to dislodge the militants of the so-called Islamic State from northwest and central Iraq was highlighted Monday when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps accused the United States of killing two of its military advisers in a drone strike on the outskirts of the city of Tikrit—an accusation vehemently denied by the Pentagon.
The claim came as U.S. airstrikes in the effort to boost the stalled Iraqi government assault on Tikrit continued to draw the anger of Shia militias that have spearheaded the offensive while the Iraqi army is being reconstituted.
Some Shia militia leaders have withdrawn their forces from Tikrit’s front lines in protest at the American participation and are threatening to shoot at U.S. aircraft. Others have remained in place, saying they are determined that they, not the Americans, will get credit for ousting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) from its strategic position in Tikrit.
Iranian accusations of U.S. strikes killing their advisers is further exposing the deep rifts between Washington, Baghdad, and Tehran and throwing into doubt the chances that the motley and reluctant alliance of Shia militiamen, Iranian advisers, Iraqi soldiers, local Sunni tribesmen, and U.S. pilots can hold together.
An appeal by Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, calling for unity among the forces battling ISIS, appears to be having little effect on the ground, with all the participants voicing opposition to each other.
According to the Iranians, the airstrike that killed their men took place on March 23. They identified the dead advisers as Ali Yazdani and Hadi Jafari, saying they were buried Sunday. The accusation was carried on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s own website.
American officials remain adamant that the incident couldn’t have happened, insisting they didn’t conduct any raids that day. They say U.S. airstrikes on Tikrit began on March 25—before that they were only mounting surveillance flights. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told the Associated Press: “All airstrikes are carried out through the alliance with the Iraqi government and in full coordination with the [Iraqi] Ministry of Defense.”
The Iranian claim is one of several about misdirected U.S. fire with hints thrown in by Shia militiamen that the targeting is purposeful.
On Sunday, Iran’s official Fars news agency claimed: “The U.S. and coalition forces conducted eight airstrikes near Tikrit, but they hit the popular [Shia] forces’ positions instead of ISIL. This is not the first time that the U.S. has struck the popular forces’ positions in different parts of Iraq.”
On Friday, Iraqi media reported casualties among Iraqi security forces near the University of Tikrit, again allegedly either the result of poorly coordinated U.S. airstrikes or a perfidious move by Washington. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad denies the media reports, saying, “No coalition airstrikes took place during the time or in the vicinity of these alleged casualties.”
Mishaps are certainly a high risk for the U.S.-led air offensive in both Syria and Iraq, where the targets can be as small as a checkpoint or a convoy of a couple of cars. (Recently released bombing videos from the U.S. Central Command make the potential for collateral damage abundantly clear.) Added to which, U.S. commanders are dealing with an especially complex battlefield involving disparate armed groups and partners they have not trained with and often distrust.
Rights groups in neighboring Syria have reported civilian casualties in the airstrikes on ISIS targets with possibly as many as 70 non-combatants killed since the U.S.-led coalition started a bombing campaign there in mid-September. U.S. officials remain skeptical about the accusations, but without on-the-ground damage assessment their skepticism seems disingenuous.
In Syria, U.S. raids are based almost exclusively on intelligence gathered through drone and satellite surveillance. But In Tikrit, Iraqi commanders based in a forward headquarters on the outskirts of the town have been coordinating with the U.S. and calling in strikes, as witnessed by foreign journalists who have visited. That should ensure targeting errors are kept to a minimum.
U.S. officials say the accusations of misdirected American airstrikes appear to be driven by a political agenda. The Shia militias, who have borne the brunt of the fighting against ISIS, reacted sharply as soon as Baghdad turned last week to Washington for assistance. The offensive had begun on March 3 without American support, but quickly got bogged down in the face of suicide bombings by Islamic militants and the tactical use of improvised explosive devices.
The Tikrit assault wasn’t planned with the Americans—instead Baghdad turned to the Iranians for help in directing a battle that took Washington by surprise. As the offensive has unfolded the Obama administration has become increasingly uncomfortable with the key role the Shia militias are playing. At least two-thirds of the Iraqi force besieging Tikrit are made up of Shia militiamen, and U.S. lawmakers have expressed mounting alarm that they are nothing but a proxy force for Iran to expand its sway in Iraq.
The criticism on Capitol Hill appears to be having an effect on the Obama administration, as are allegations that Iranian-backed Shia militias are committing human-rights abuses against Sunnis in territory they recapture from the Islamic State.
In the summer and autumn there was coordination between U.S. and Shia commanders to edge out Islamic militants from the Iraqi towns of Amirli and Jurf al Sakher. But last week, Washington urged Baghdad to sideline Shia brigades closely aligned with Tehran and replace them with Iraqi regulars. Iraqi officials say the U.S. request is impractical because they don’t have the dependable and experienced security units available to do so.