In IS Fight, Concern Over Iran, Sectarian Divide

March 06,2015

PENTAGON— As the battle for Tikrit rages between Islamic State militants and Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militias, two major concerns have emerged: the role of Iran and the fear that sectarian divides will grow wider.

Days of fighting around Tikrit have yielded slow progress against Islamic State militants, who have held the city since last June.

''Our troops are now advancing according to the drawn up plan, though there are so many bombs planted by Islamic State militants to hinder our progress,” Iraqi Lieutenant General Abdul Amir al-Zaidi said.

The enemy is the same, but this fight against the militants is different. Above, there is no U.S. support from the air, and on the ground, Iranians are helping Shi'ite militiamen.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Thursday the situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what Gulf states have feared - Iran “taking over” Iraqi forces.

Another fear is sectarian violence. Sunni leaders say the Iraqi government is failing to support them.

“[The government] stands with hands folded towards the Sunni tribes, while it pays heed to and supports the Shi'ite militiamen who came from everywhere to purge the areas occupied by IS militants, while the Sunni tribes don't have weapons,” said Sheik Abdul Madhi al-Smaidaie, the Grand Mufti of Iraq.

“We’ve been down the road of sectarianism in Iraq and it’s important that the government of Iraq not go down that road again,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

In Washington, caution from military leaders is growing.

“We’re watching carefully, and if this becomes an excuse to ethnic cleanse then our campaign has a problem and we’re going to have to make a campaign adjustment,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Those leading the fight have sent mixed messages. U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for the protection of civilians, but he’s also declared, "There is no neutrality in the battle against ISIS.”

Human rights defenders like Joe Stork say a statement like that could be used to justify violence.

“Even very recently we’ve seen these militias carrying out terrible acts in the aftermath of these kinds of operations,” said Stork.

Terrible acts include the demolition of homes and even executions. A graphic mobile phone video emerged on social media this week, but VOA has not been able to verify its authenticity or date. It shows a Sunni boy captured by men wearing uniforms with the Iraqi insignia.

Seconds later, the boy is shot to death.

“There has to be consequences when people carry out these kinds of crimes, and we haven’t seen any of that yet,” said Stork.

As the battle continues for northern Iraq, officials are urging restraint and accountability from Iraqis and Iranians helping in the fight. But they are all aware the sectarian tinderbox could ignite at any moment.

Archaeological site destroyed

The head of UNESCO has condemned the bulldozing of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq by Islamic State militants, saying "the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime."

"UNESCO is determined to do whatever is needed to document and protect the heritage of Iraq and lead the fight against the illicit traffic of cultural artifacts, which directly contributes to the financing of terrorism," Irnia Bokova, the chief of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said Friday. "I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up and remind everyone that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity's cultural heritage."

Islamic State militants began bulldozing Nimrud Thursday, the latest in a series of assaults on Iraq's historical heritage by the terrorist group.

Iraq's Ministry of Tourism said in a statement the IS militants continue to "defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity" with their attacks on historic sites.

Abdulamir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist, told the French News Agency, "I'm sorry to say everybody was expecting this. Their plan is to destroy Iraqi heritage, one site at a time."

The extent of the latest attack in Nimrud is not fully known, the government said.

Among Nimrud's treasures are the huge "lamassu" statues that depict lions or winged bulls with human heads.

Ihsan Fethi, a member of the Iraqi Architects Society, told The New York Times, "I cannot even describe the immensity of this loss… This is one of the most famous and probably one of the most important sites in the world."

Nimrud, one of the jewels of the Assyrian era, was founded in the 13th century BC and is located on the Tigris River, about 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul where IS terrorists recently destroyed priceless artifacts in a museum.

Video of the Mosul devastation showed the jihadists tearing through the museum knocking statues off the platforms. It also showed the militants using a jackhammer to deface a granite Assyrian winged bull at the Nergal Gate in Mosul.

The jihadists are destroying the artifacts because in their harsh interpretation of Islam statues, idols and shrines amount to idolatry.

The Iraqi Tourism Ministry said in its statement "leaving these gangs without punishment will encourage them to eliminate human civilization entirely, especially the Mesopotamian civilization which cannot be compensated."

The ministry has asked the U.N. Security Council for help.