Noah Gordon: What led the administration to approve strikes on Tikrit now? Does the approval suggest the U.S. needed certain assurances about which forces the strikes were supporting?
Stephen Biddle: “We don’t know” is the most truthful answer, because the government has only said so much. The United States has been trying to persuade the Iraqis to reform their military, reform their government, open the Iraqi government to accommodation of legitimate Sunni security interests, and reduce the emphasis on Shiite militias and other groups that Sunnis distrust. The problem all along has been that [the United States] had very little leverage with the Baghdad government and it's been difficult to get them to do things that they view as risky.
One way to interpret what's been going on in Tikrit is to look at how the United States has been using the fact that the Iraqis apparently failed in their attempt to take the city. It's like they're saying: "Our support is more valuable to you and more necessary for you than you thought. If you want it, you need to get on with the business of carrying out the reforms we’ve been asking for. If you don’t reform, we have demonstrated that we are perfectly prepared to stand aside and watch you fail, as we just did in Tikrit. But if you do reform, we are prepared to make success possible for you."
And in that way, [American] policy in Tikrit—no support before, more support after—might, one hopes, be part of a leverage campaign to bring about difficult reforms in the Iraqi government and military.
Gordon: ISIS has reportedly set up booby traps and IEDs in the city, as well as positioned snipers on rooftops. Is this a challenge similar to those the U.S. faced early in the Iraq War, like in the fight for Fallujah in 2004, where fighting in a city is difficult even with more troops and strong air support?
Biddle: What ISIS has been doing is pretty typical of the way non-state militaries defend in cities. And this is long understood to be a very hard form of warfare. It’s not hugely surprising that less well-trained government military forces—the Shiite militias in particular—with limited material support, would find it tough going in urban terrain against an opponent who’s able to do the usual panoply of urban warfare, defensive tactics to slow down an offensive.
Gordon: Can you tell me about the Iraqi factions involved in the fight? Prime Minister Abadi requested the strikes, but Tikrit is in a heavily Sunni area, and The New York Times reports that some Shiite militias have pulled out to protest American involvement.
Biddle: Public reporting on the Tikrit offensive suggested that the overwhelming majority of the combatant strength that the government committed initially was from a series of Shiite militias that had been funded, supported, and advised, if not commanded, by the Iranians. The Iraqi government has said that there were also Sunni tribal forces participating with the government in the offensive. That constellation of forces made some progress against outlying villages and in the approaches to Tikrit, but once they got into the heart of the urban battlefield, they suffered very heavy casualties and failed to make much progress.