Following the liberation of Tikrit, Iraqi military commanders and their US allies are divided over strategy for the the next military operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS).
There are currently three options.
The first involves pushing north from Tikrit, liberating towns along the Tigris River until the refinery town of Beiji, which is still under ISIL control.
In November, an Iraqi special commando unit failed to entirely free Beiji from ISIL clutches.
The town has strategic value because it is on the road to Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which was seized by ISIL last June.
On Monday, the Pentagon said it had destroyed ISIL positions near Beiji.
The second option, which is favored by the Iraq military and their Iran-backed militia allies, is to have forces double back and head southward to the Anbar province near the capital Baghdad.
In January 2014, political squabbles in the western city of Falluja in Anbar Province created a vacuum which was quickly usurped by ISIL who drove government-allied forces from the region.
The Iraqi Army has tried in vain to regain control of Falluja; ISIL forces have actually expanded their control of the area to include the Abu Ghraib district in Anbar, very near the capital Baghdad.
The Iraqi government says that Anbar is the next logical target because it is close to Baghdad and has been a gateway of fighters from Syria.
Iraqi officials agree that the key to liberating Anbar is to get Sunni tribal fighters there to side with the army, a difficult task.
Sunnis in Anbar, who had fought against Al-Qaeda since 2006, had accused former Prime Minister Nour Al-Maliki of trying to marginalize and intimidate them, and of failing to provide assistance as many of their members were gunned down in revenge attacks.
Although some Sunni fighters sided with ISIL last year, many have switched sides, maintaining ties with the government in Baghdad.
ISIL has pursued Sunni tribesmen and executed many since they took over Anbar last year.
In November, the Associated Press (AP) reported that ISIL was “hunting” down former Sunni police officers, military personnel and anyone deemed a threat or a possible lynch-pin for a revolt against the extremist group.
AP quoted security officials in Anbar who said they found 48 bodies of executed Sunni policemen and civilians over the weekend.
Although infrequently reported in mainstream media, ISIL killing of fellow Sunnis is not new.
In Anbar province, extremists routinely targeted Sunni tribesmen who formed militia to battle Al-Qaeda since 2007. Senior tribal leaders were also targeted for assassination.
The Iraqi government’s challenge before it launches a military campaign against a predominantly Sunni province is to minimize the use of Iranian-backed militias.
These militias were accused of looting Sunni homes and shops in Tikrit, as well as torturing and lynching suspected ISIL fighters and sympathizers. Such aftermath is unlikely to persuade Sunnis to join the army in combat against ISIL.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi ordered that looting militia fighters and those committing abuses be arrested; on Sunday, he ordered Shia militias to leave Tikrit, following his meeting with local Sunni tribal leaders.
But US military commanders would rather focus on option three – preparing for an all-out assault against Mosul, the capital of the northern and historic Nineveh province.
Although they believe the Iraqi military is currently incapable of launching a campaign to liberate Mosul, seizing the multi-ethnic city first would make a sweep of ISIL to the west and back into Syria much easier.
Mosul, however, is a prize of an entirely different caliber. It is a major Iraqi city of nearly one million mostly Sunni inhabitants. Previously policed by the military, the city was resentful of the presence of the mostly Shia Iraqi army.
The sectarian distrust in part prompted the province’s self-exiled governor Atheel Al Nujaifi to announce on Saturday that the Shia militias used to retake Tikrit would have no role at all in the liberation of Mosul.
“We are dealing with the Iraqi government and the Ministry of Defense, not militias operating under specific groups,” Nujaifi told Kurdish media network Rudaw.
“The presence of [the Shia militia] Hashd al-Shaabi in Mosul will cause sectarian tensions. The Iraqi government already agreed to exclude the group in the Mosul operation,” he went on to tell Rudaw.
The Iraqi government is likely aware that it cannot afford to allow a sectarian element to become part of its military campaign.
Many young Mosul residents are likely to ally with ISIL if Shia militias, particularly those funded and backed by Iran, were to take part in the operation to liberate Mosul.
Initially, Mosul had welcomed ISIL forces in June. But in recent months, ISIL has destroyed much of Nineveh’s heritage, some destroyed monuments were 5,000 years old; the city was also purged of its 1,800-year-old Christian minority.
Many in Mosul soon turned against ISIL.
On Monday, Al Abadi and Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani agreed to establish a joint military operations “war room” to facilitate the campaign to retake Mosul.
Kurdish Peshmerga irregular forces have been locked in fierce battle against ISIL forces in both northern Iraq and Syria.
But Al Abadi’s most immediate challenge is to rebuild Tikrit and quickly return tens of thousands of civilians who fled in the previous months.
The Iraqi prime minister on Sunday promised to establish a fund to rehabilitate damaged and destroyed homes to facilitate a speedy return for these refugees.
The BRICS POST with inputs from Agencies