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What's At Stake In The Iraqi Battle For Tikrit?


And what happens next in the battle for Tikrit could say a lot about what happens to Iraq when the fighting is done. Again, Tikrit is Saddam Hussein's hometown - only about a two-hour drive from Baghdad and now held by ISIS. As we just heard from Tom Bowman, the Iraqi army is receiving assistance from Iran. Kurdish forces and local Shiite militias are also expected to play a part. The battle could give us some clues about how those groups will work together and whether they can defeat ISIS. Let's hear now from a prominent scholar of the region. Vali Nasr is dean of the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Good morning.

VALI NASR: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the Iraqi government says it intends to retake Mosul in the spring - the second-largest city in that country - but it first launched this assault on Tikrit. How important is this offensive for the Iraqis?

NASR: It's very important for Prime Minister Abadi because he's trying to show his capability to govern Iraq, to bring Sunnis and Shiites together and also to be able to project power, provide security. And it's an operation that would give him a great deal of legitimacy if it succeeds.

MONTAGNE: And as we just heard from Tom, after ISIS took control of Tikrit, there were reports of mass executions of Shiite fighters there. Tell us what role the Shiite and Sunni rivalry plays - that we've heard so much about - in this battle for Tikrit.

NASR: Well, there are Shiites in Tikrit, but this is a largely Sunni city. And it's a very symbolic city because it's Saddam Hussein's city. And, therefore, capturing it back from ISIS matters a great deal to the local Sunni population, as well as Sunnis in the rest of Iraq. This will be seen as a Shiite victory, not necessarily a government of Iraq victory. And how the Iraqi soldiers handle retribution, how they handle the local population could be very significant in terms of whether they will get support as they go after ISIS in other places.

MONTAGNE: As in the local Sunni population...

NASR: Right. The local Sunni population was not responsible for the massacres. But in the eyes of the Shiites, it was seen as collaborating with ISIS at the beginning, allowing ISIS to take the city. So how the Shiites handle victory is very important, if they actually are victorious.

MONTAGNE: And you say if, as in it really is a big question still.

NASR: It's a very big question. If the Iraqi government fails here, it emboldens ISIS. It improves ISIS' image. And it makes it much more difficult for the government that's been beaten by ISIS in the battlefield to persuade Sunnis elsewhere in Iraq to rise up against a brutal force like ISIS.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, as we've been saying, Iran is playing a part in this battle for Tikrit, just not so far out of Baghdad. U.S. advisers are working with Iraqi forces in the north and also Kurdish forces. Can Iran and the U.S. fight this common enemy without actually crossing paths?

NASR: Well, they have done it in smaller battles, like the capture of the town of Amreli before. They loosely coordinated through Iraqi forces, so each of them spoke to Iraqi forces. There was American air cover. There was Iranian support on the ground. And this may happen again in Tikrit, as well. If the Iraqi forces are very successful in Tikrit, it will - it will essentially showcase this kind of a ad hoc, tacit Iranian-American cooperation because without it, they're not going to succeed in Tikrit.

MONTAGNE: But the cooperation - never direct...

NASR: It's never been direct. So far, it has worked indirect. Tikrit is a test whether this kind of indirect cooperation can continue to work. But in reality, without American support and without Iranian support at the same time, Iraqi forces won't succeed.

MONTAGNE: And just - finally, what are the biggest risks for the U.S. in all of this - the very key risks?

NASR: The most important risk is that the United States strategy is that the Iraqis can do the fighting on the ground, provided that they're trained and advised by American personnel. If they cannot win in Tikrit, then it's difficult to argue that the American strategy's credible and that you actually can defeat and destroy ISIS through this current strategy. It may force the hand of the United States to become much more directly involved in the fighting.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

NASR: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Vali Nasr is a former State Department official now at Johns Hopkins University. He is dean of the School for Advanced International Studies. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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