The U.S. agreement to conduct airstrikes to support the Iraqi offensive to retake Tikrit was contingent on Iranian-backed militias pulling out of the operation, the commander of U.S. Central Command said Thursday.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Lloyd Austin said the Shia militias, led by Iranian Quds Commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani, had left the area around Tikrit before U.S. forces provided air support in the mostly-stalled offensive against Islamic State forces holding the city. U.S. officials had estimated that as many as 18,000 of the 23,000 Iraqi forces in the offensive were Shiite militia fighters.
The Pentagon announced Thursday morning that U.S. forces had launched 17 airstrikes near Tikrit, destroying various ISIS positions at the request of the Iraqi government.
Speaking from his personal experience in Iraq, Austin explained why he would never work with Shia militias.
“I’d just like to highlight sir, after three tours in Iraq commanding troops in Iraq who were brutalized by some of these Shia militias I will not and I hope we never coordinate or cooperate with the Shia militias,” Austin said.
Austin took a dig at the Shia militia themselves, noting that the offensive to retake Tikrit had stalled specifically because they were poorly led.
“It’s the way the forces went about trying to do this,” Austin said. “The forces were not controlled by the government of Iraq, there was no coherent scheme of maneuvers, command and control, and didn’t have precision fires to support this effort.”
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, commander of the anti-ISIS coalition Gen. John Allen explained to lawmakers in the House Foreign Affairs committee that the U.S. only came to aid as a result of the Iraqi government’s request.
“I don’t believe at all that we’re, in our efforts, at this moment, saving or attempting to salvage a failed Iranian strategy,” Allen said. “As the operation unfolded, [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider al] Abadi and members of the Iraqi security forces requested U.S. and coalition support for the final phase of the operation ultimately to liberate the city of Tikrit.
Allen was then asked to answer why Iran’s Quds Force commander, who directed Shia militias during the Iraq War responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops, wasn’t himself targeted in the airstrikes.
“My question is, is if we were conducting air operations, would somebody like Qassem Suleimani be a target?” asked Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Florida.
Allen told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee the U.S. had no intention of targeting Suleimani.
“We're in this to assist the Iraqi government in dealing with Daesh,” Allen said. “That's the reason that we're there, not to go to war with Iran.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.