Battle of Tikrit’s lessons for Obama

Iraqi militants fire rockets at Isil fighters in Tikrit, the home city of Saddam Hussein Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP

After weeks of hesitation, the Obama administration last week responded to an Iraqi demand for air strikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit, a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad. Initially, Washington decided to stay out of the battle for Tikrit as a gesture of goodwill to the Islamic Republic.

Secretary of State John Kerry believed by letting Iran lead he would reassure the mullahs the US will not oppose their quest for influence in the broader Middle East.

However, the battle for Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, proved three things.

First, it showed that by abdicating its leadership position, the US creates a vacuum that others — including Iran, IS and even Turkey and so-called moderate Arab states — will try to exploit, thus further complicating an already tangled situation.

Next, weeks of fighting for Tikrit have shown that, though praised by Obama as a “power in the region,” the Islamic Republic does not have the wherewithal to win a major battle against a determined enemy such as IS. For weeks, Tehran made a great deal of noise about Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Corps and the man in charge of exporting the revolution. A master in the art of self-promotion, Suleimani has been distributing photos and videos showing him in various outfits at various, always unidentified, locations claimed to be “in the heart of the battlefield.”

However, the extended fighting has shown that Suleimani’s supposed genius, hyped beyond reason by sections of the US media, is more Madison Avenue than anything else. The forces supposedly led by Suleimani have sustained what official Iranian media describe as “heavy losses.” Among the “martyrs” were two generals and more than a dozen officers of lower ranks attached to Suleimani’s ad hoc force.

Finally, the Iranian failure in Tikrit underscores, once again, the toxic nature of Tehran’s intervention in the affairs of its neighbors. In fact, Tehran’s aggressive promotion of the most radical version of Shi’ism is exploited by groups such as IS to mobilize Sunni Muslim opinion in their favor…