ROBERT BURNS, AP National Security Writer
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — The top U.S. general predicts the one-two punch of Iranian-backed militias and Iraqi government troops will prevail over Islamic State fighters in the unfolding battle for Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
But U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the expected successful push in Tikrit, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, would not be possible without U.S. airstrikes that have tied down IS elsewhere in the north.
Dempsey was asked by reporters traveling with him overnight Friday from Washington to Bahrain whether he believes IS will be pushed out of Tikrit.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “The numbers are overwhelming.”
Dempsey said about 23,000 Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen and Iraqi soldiers are involved in the offensive, compared with “hundreds” of IS fighters.
The offensive is not what the Americans would consider textbook military tactics, he said. He described a hodgepodge of Iraqi Humvees, trucks and other vehicles surging toward Tikrit like rush hour on the congested highway that encircles Washington, D.C.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a sophisticated military maneuver,” he said.
During his trip, Dempsey planned to meet with officials in Bahrain, and hold talks with government leaders and U.S. commanders in Iraq. He also planned to visit a French aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, sent to the Persian Gulf as part of the military operations in Iraq with the U.S.-led coalition.
Dempsey’s visit, which began Saturday, comes at an intriguing stage of the war to force IS from Iraq. Its fighters swept across much of northern and western Iraq last summer and now control numerous cities, including Tikrit.
The U.S. and its allies have launched hundreds of airstrikes at IS targets since August, and those attacks are credited with halting the group’s territorial advances.
But in the Tikrit offensive, which began Monday, the U.S. is on the sidelines, watching as Iran asserts influence by providing training, weapons and leadership for Iraqi Shiite militias leading the charge on Tikrit.
Dempsey said he sees no evidence that the Iranian military is fighting on the ground in Iraq. The Iranians have improved the Iraqi militias’ fighting capabilities, but their role has raised worries among America’s coalition allies. Among them are Gulf Arab nations that despise Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the push on Tikrit as “an Iraqi-designed and an Iraqi-controlled advance,” while he acknowledged the role of militias that are getting “direction” from Iran.
If Iran “kills a bunch” of IS fighters and “it serves the interests of Iraq and the rest of us,” Kerry said at a news conference Saturday in Paris, “that might wind up helping. But it doesn’t mean that we accept in any way their behavior” in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere in the region.
Dempsey said that while Iran is getting credit for enabling the Tikrit offensive, the full story of how it was made possible has not been told.
“If it weren’t for the (U.S.-led coalition) air campaign over time depleting the ISIL forces in Beiji … then the current campaign (in Tikrit) as currently constructed would not be militarily feasible,” he said.
IS had surged into Beiji, just north of Tikrit, in hopes of controlling a key oil refinery. But the militants have been halted and tied down by U.S. airstrikes, Dempsey said. That little-noted IS setback has divided and weakened its forces, he added.
“The important thing about this operation in Tikrit is less about how the military aspect of it goes and more about what follows,” Dempsey said.
The mostly Sunni population of Tikrit must be allowed to return to their homes, and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad must step in with reconstruction and humanitarian aid, he said.
If that happens, “then I think we’re in a really good place,” he said. If it does not happen, then the future could be problematic, he said.
The critical task for Iraq’s leaders, Dempsey said, is to balance the Iranian role in empowering Shiite militias with Iraq’s partnership with the U.S. and other coalition members.
“The only one that can balance that is the prime minister of Iraq,” Dempsey said. “So I want to get his views on how he is seeking to balance that concern.”
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