Lawmakers and senior U.S. military leaders expressed concern Wednesday that Iranian trained and equipped Shia militias have led the assault on Tikrit to wrest back control of the strategic Iraqi town from ISIS.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the offensive to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is dominated by 20,000 Shia militia forces, which far outnumber the 3,000 Iraqi troops also taking part in the assault.
The Iranian-trained fighters – also referred to as the Popular Mobilization Forces -- outnumber the 3,000, Iraqi Security Force soldiers and 1,000 Sunni tribal fighters who have joined them in the fight to take Tikrit, Dempsey explained.
Dempsey said the U.S. is confident the Iran and Iraq force will defeat ISIS in Tikrit, but he is more concerned what happens after the Shia militia forces control the Sunni-dominated city.
Tikrit was the home of former Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein and the center of power of the previous Sunni-controlled Iraqi regime that tortured and killed thousands of Shia in Iraq and Iran.
"There's no doubt that the combination of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces are going to run ISIL out of Tikrit. The question is what comes after in terms of their willingness to let Sunni families move back into their neighborhoods -- whether they work to restore the basic services or whether it results in atrocities and retribution," Dempsey told the committee.
Dempsey, who was joined at the hearing by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry, said Iranian involvement could be a problem and listed substantial concerns about Iran's many activities in the region.
He cited issues such as weapons trafficking of ballistic missile technology and efforts to engineer mines designed to close the Straits of Hormuz, a strategic waterway that provides access to the Persian Gulf.
Dempsey also expressed concerns about the country's aspirations to develop a nuclear weapon – an issue which he said was being dealt with through negotiations led by the Obama administration.
Kerry added that the Obama administration was deeply worried about Iran's activities supporting terrorist groups in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Hezbollah.
At the same time, Dempsey also said any military effort to destroy ISIS was not necessarily a negative thing.
"The general consensus both inside of our own forces and with coalition partners with whom I engage is that anything anyone does to counter ISIL would be a good outcome," Dempsey said.
"In other words, the activity of the Iranians and their support for the Iraqi Security Forces is a positive thing in military terms against ISIL – but we are all concerned about what happens after the drums stops beating, ISIL is defeated, and whether the government of Iraq will remain on a path to provide an inclusive government for all of the various groups. We're very concerned about that."
Dempsey said the Iranian-backed Shia militias are not expected to attack the U.S. forces currently training Iraq soldiers. However, members of the militia come from the same group that killed U.S. troops in Iraq at the height of fighting in Iraq in 2007.
Similarly, Iranian Special Forces units known as the Quds Force, which are currently supporting the attack on Tikrit, trained Iraqi insurgents to build improvised explosive devices that maimed and killed thousands of U.S. troops.
The conversation about Iran's involvement in the Tikrit assault took place during Wednesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to discuss the language and scope of the Obama administration's proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, against ISIS.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org