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Tikrit Battle: U.S. And Iran-Backed Militias Are On The Same Side


We're turning this morning to Iraq and the battle to recapture Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, from ISIS. This battle has two influential players fighting quite uncomfortably on the same side, the United States and Shiite militias backed by Iran. NPR's Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Driving north from Baghdad to the front lines close to the city of Tikrit, it's easy to see how important the Shiite militias are to Iraq's war efforts. Through roads and villages retaken from ISIS, their colorful flags and religious slogans are everywhere. They coordinate with federal police at checkpoints.


FORDHAM: When we stop in the charred remains of one village rested back from ISIS earlier this month, militiamen and police mill around a makeshift operation center with shattered windows. In mismatched uniforms, blasting music, they speed ahead of us to the front lines on the edge of Tikrit.


FORDHAM: Last week, after an offensive here stalled, the U.S.-led coalition agreed to an Iraqi government request to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Tikrit on one condition, that the Shiite militias pull back. The militias are closely tied to Iran, and Pentagon chiefs say they don't want to work with them.


FORDHAM: But when we reach the last base before the ISIS-occupied area, everyone says the militias haven't budged.

RAED JAWDET: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Right now, we're living among our brothers, the heroes from the Shiite militias," says federal police commander Lieutenant General Raed Jawdet.


FORDHAM: In fact, he says as his men fire off rockets, this is a militia base, except he calls them popular mobilization forces.

JAWDET: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Some of them have just been redeployed to hold territory," he says. "They have not withdrawn." Analysts think there are more than 40,000 of these Shiite militia fighters in Iraq. Talking to a few of them, one thing becomes clear. They do not like the United States.

MOHAMMED ATTAWI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: This is Mohammed Attawi, a young fighter. He says an American airstrike last week struck Shiite fighters on purpose, killing them.

ATTAWI: They hit our friends in Tikrit University.

FORDHAM: The U.S. has vehemently denied this.

ATTAWI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "This is our country," he says. "We don't want help from anyone." Then, he's interrupted by a tall man named Ammar Ali with a salt-and-pepper beard. He describes himself as media personnel for the Shiite fighters. Like many here, he believes the United States created ISIS.

AMMAR ALI: We deeply believe that ISIS is created by the United States for so many a purpose. And one of the purpose is to demolish Middle East.

FORDHAM: The men here say they've seen footage of the U.S. resupplying ISIS from the air, part of a number of dirty tricks, they say, to keep the Middle East at war.

ALI: So the American government is playing, really, a dirty role.

FORDHAM: Some analysts point out these Shiite forces are popular and expanding beyond the military arena. Some leaders are already Parliament members taking a break from lawmaking to fight, like Faleh Al Khazaali, who says their obligations to fight are legal and legitimate.

FALEH AL KHAZAALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "When the decision is made to enter Tikrit, we will enter," he says. A Pentagon spokesman described the militias as completely sidelined last week. But Khazaali says his men are part of the government and of the state. Alice Fordham, NPR News, on the outskirts of Tikrit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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