Iranian-led Shiite militias withdraw from Tikrit fighting as U.S. joins battle

Iraqi Shiite Muslim militias, angry that the government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has asked for American help in ejecting Islamic State fighters from the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, began Thursday withdrawing their forces from the battle, the first major break between the Iranian-trained militias and Iraq’s military establishment since the Islamic State advance last year.

Whether the militias, which have formed the backbone of the Iraqi response to the Islamic State since Iraq’s army collapsed last summer, would continue to participate in the fighting was undecided. Militia members told McClatchy that their commanders were meeting to decide the issue.

But the withdrawal of the militias with their Iranian advisers would be a victory of sorts for U.S. officials, who’ve warned repeatedly that the Iraqi government’s dependency on sectarian organizations fed support for the Islamic State among Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Muslim population.

One Iraqi security official said three major Shiite groups – the League of Righteousness, the Kateb Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, already had withdrawn their forces. The official, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive military matters, said he had been told that the militia commanders were meeting late Thursday to decide whether to remain or return to Baghdad, where many had mustered last summer in response to the Islamic State advance.

“Militia leaders have assured us that all militias will be represented” at the meeting, the official said. “Participants will decide either to participate or withdraw.”

One militia officer, who also spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that many militia remained arrayed outside Tikrit with their Iranian advisers. He said both the militias and their advisers opposed American participation in the offensive. “They object as much as we do to the participation of the Americans in this noble operation to liberate Iraqi land from Daash,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State.

The withdrawal of the militias from the battle for Tikrit would be a dramatic reversal of Iraqi tactics to stem the Islamic State’s advance. In the first months after the Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, last June, then raced across northern and central Iraq, Shiite militias were credited with preventing the capture of some crucial cities, including Samarra.

Their performance since has been mixed. An Iranian-led militia effort to retake the critical oil refinery town of Baiji took weeks, then ultimately failed when the Islamic State returned days later.

The presence of the Shiite militias also raised important human rights questions amid widespread allegations that they had exacted revenge on Sunni civilians in the areas where they operated. ABC News compiled a string of videos showing alleged abuses earlier this month and presented them to U.S. and Iraqi authorities. A statement from Human Rights Watch earlier this month said it had documented atrocities by government forces and militias in areas of Diyala province north of Baghdad, where they had recaptured territory from the Islamic State.

American officials in testimony before Congress shortly after the Tikrit offensive began said the U.S. was watching closely for human rights violations as the campaign unfolded.

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the United States had insisted that the militias and their Iranian advisers, including top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani, withdraw from the battle before the U.S. would agree to launch airstrikes. Suleimani, a once shadowy figure who’d become an increasingly public presence in Iraq, left the Tikrit area over the weekend and may have returned to Iran.

U.S. and Iraqi officials gave dramatic accounts of the opening of the U.S. aerial campaign, which included eight straight hours of bombardment on Tikrit, an onslaught that involved at least 17 U.S. aircraft and more than 100 bombs, and which lasted from 10 p.m. Wednesday to 6:30 a.m. Thursday.

That was followed by five waves of Iraqi air force planes during daylight Thursday in what one Iraqi commander, Lt. Col. Abdul Amir, described as a tag-team arrangement, with U.S. aircraft, with the more advanced targeting systems, flying at night and Iraqi aircraft undertaking missions during the day.

Amir, who spoke from the scene by phone, said the airstrikes hit Islamic State supply depots, bunker positions and fortifications inside the so-called Presidential Compound in Tikrit. He said at least 75 Islamic State fighters had been killed.

The U.S. air campaign was followed by a resumption of Iraqi army operations to clear out what is believed to be a few hundred Islamic State fighters holed up in central Tikrit.

There was no early word on whether that push was succeeding. The Iraqi effort to eject the Islamic State from Tikrit initially involved an estimated 30,000 men, of which at least 20,000 were Shiite militia. The operation stalled after about two weeks as their casualties rose – an estimated 1,000 militiamen were killed – and the Iraqi military establishment clashed with the Iranian-advised militias over asking for American help.

The loss of a substantial portion of the 20,000-strong militia force would be a serious test for the ability of U.S. airstrikes to do what sheer manpower could not.