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Advised By Iran's Military, Iraqi Forces Launch Effort To Retake Tikrit


There could be an epic battle in Iraq this spring. U.S. officials say Iraq's military may be ready by then to take Mosul, the country's second-largest city, back from the Islamic State. Hundreds of American military trainers are preparing Iraqi forces. But there's a battle going on right now to take back another Iraqi city - Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi forces have already entered the city. They've retaken the police academy and are less than a mile from the provincial council building. In the battle for Tikrit, Iraq's military's getting extensive support not from the United States, but from Iran. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.


TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: That's Iraqi forces firing artillery toward Tikrit. U.S. officials tell NPR that Iran is providing support - artillery and rockets, surveillance and advisers - to both the Iraqi army and Shia militias.

MICHAEL KNIGHTS: There are two theaters operating in Iraq right now.

BOWMAN: Michael Knights is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and specializes in Iraqi military and security affairs.

KNIGHTS: One is Iranian-backed. The other theater that's opening up is the upper Tigris River Valley. And in that direction, we expect the U.S. and international partners.

BOWMAN: Knights says the Iranians are working alongside the Iraqi army, much like the U.S. military did before all American combat troops left in 2011...

KNIGHTS: ...Which is that they put their people in headquarters. They have their intelligence cells in the headquarters. They're running drones.

BOWMAN: And the Americans are left to watch, flying their own drones above Tikrit. U.S. officials have repeatedly said they're not coordinating their military efforts with Iran, and they say there's more to worry about than just increased Iranian influence. A particular concern - retribution. Some of the Sunni tribes worked with ISIS when they captured Tikrit last June and executed some 1,700 Shia Iraqi soldiers at an old American military base called Camp Speicher.

One prominent Shia militia leader recently called the Tikrit operation, quote, "the battle of the revenge for Speicher." If the Shia militias track down some of those Sunni tribesmen, that could further divide the country. Right now, though, the Iraqi government says its main focus is fighting the Islamic State with help from both the United States and Iran. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.