Battle for Tikrit poses questions about Iran’s role in Iraq

'The United States had 170,000 troops on the ground at one stage, and we couldn't control the political outcome of the country.'

The large-scale ground offensive against Daesh to retake Tikrit marks not only a turning point in Iraq’s efforts to defeat the extremists within its territory, but a significant milestone for Iran.

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL.

Iraqi security forces, backed by Iran-supported Shiite militias, launched attacks on Tikrit last week. It’s the largest Iraqi military operation against Daesh since the militants took over large swaths of Iraq, culminating in their seizure of roughly a third of the country.

Qasem Soleimani, the shadowy commander of the Quds Force, an elite branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, reportedly traveled to Iraq to assist in the operation.

“While we have to keep an eye on what Iran is doing in terms of its long-term strategy, it’s fight against Islamic State serves American interests, and serves the government of Baghdad,” Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told The Anadolu Agency.

The ground offensive, which aims to seize control of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit is considered a pivotal step toward retaking control of Daesh’s stronghold of Mosul.

“This was put together by the Iraqis, formulated by the Iraqis, executed by the Iraqis, and that’s the best thing all of us could, frankly, ask for,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last Thursday at a press conference in Riyadh with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. “So we take it the way it is and we’ll hope for the best results and move from there.”

But al-Faisal’s assessment of the events was in sharp contrast with America’s top diplomat.

“The situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what we’re worried about. Iran is taking over the country,” he said in remarks translated from Arabic.

The U.S. has assembled a more than 60-nation coalition, which Saudi Arabia is a member of, to combat Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

The coalition currently conducts airstrikes against the militants in Iraq and Syria, and trains local forces to take the fight to Daesh. But it has stopped short of sending troops into combat zones to support Iraqi forces, something Iran has not been shy about doing.