It might seem like Hillary Clinton’s emails are the biggest story in the world right now, but prior to this week, there was an even greater threat to humanity than a MacGyvered-up Hotmail account, and it was called ISIS. This week, Iraqi forces have been conducting an assault on ISIS-held Tikrit, hometown of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. You might not have heard much about it, because remember how the White House press spent the week making 231 references to Hillary Clinton’s email? Well, there was exactly one question asked about the assault on Tikrit.
When I was at the White House this week, I had extensive discussions with officials on the operation in Tikrit, but didn’t get the chance to ask about it during the daily briefings. On Wednesday, CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett asked Press Secretary Josh Earnest about Tikrit, and also noted the absence of any other interest in this story. “There’s been something going on Tikrit in the last three or four days we haven’t had a chance to ask you about,” he said, before asking Earnest about the offensive.
Earnest was obviously well-prepared for the question, answering at length about the operation, and the followup on the expected upcoming operation in Mosul:
“…The good news is that this operation includes a multisectarian force. And this is consistent with the language and the ambition that has been expressed by Prime Minister Abadi.”
“…The other thing that we’re mindful of is that Iranian forces are also involved. And we have said from the beginning that the United States will not coordinate militarily with the Iranians, but the fact that some Iranian military personnel are involved doesn’t change the priority that the Iraqis can and should place on this operation to ensure that it’s inclusive and multisectarian.”
“…we would anticipate that any operation in Mosul would be led by Iraqi forces, would be commenced at a time and place of the choosing of Iraq’s military leaders and their political leaders. And we would expect that any sort of operation on Mosul would also be multisectarian, that it would reflect the diversity of that country, and if necessary, include the backing of our broader coalition, including military airpower.”
“I mean, the thing that I will clarify here is that U.S. or coalition airstrikes are not taking place in support of the Tikrit operation. This is something the Department of Defense has said. I do think we would envision a scenario where an operation against Mosul would certainly have the possibility of being backed by coalition airstrikes.”
On Tuesday, White House officials told me that the President is following the operation in Tikrit closely, and receives information daily from intelligence sources.
Part of the reason this operation is receiving less attention than it otherwise might is that U.S. forces are (apparently) not participating, although the fact that Iranian forces are should make this a big, if complicated, bit of news, We want fighters in the region to handle ground operations against ISIS, but it’s also hard, and politically fraught, to root for Iran.
It’s also a tough story to get a handle on from a reporting standpoint, and the result appears to be some underselling. Early in the week, there were reports that the Iraqi advance had been slowed by roadside bombs, which is a bit like saying Bill Clinton’s advance through McDonald’s was slowed by a Big Mac. Everyone knew they were going to be there, and probably planned accordingly.
The White House is obviously leery of making any noises that sound remotely like “Mission: Accomplished,” but the latest reports out of Tikrit are that ISIS has set fire to oilfields in order to slow the advance of the Iraq-led forces. That does not sound like the action of someone who’s winning.
The White House has also been making clear that there is no military coordination with Iran, but also haven’t specifically ruled out Iranian involvement in the forthcoming assault on Mosul. Indeed, Earnest seems to be indicating that Iranian backing won’t disqualify local militias from the fight, but it’s unclear what the U.S. position would be if the Iranians supported the operation in some independent way. Maintaining a firewall between the U.S. and Iranian forces is a political necessity, but if things keep going this way, they could begin to look like some kind of bizarre germophobic tag team that never actually tags.