Shiite `Soldiers of God` Color Tikrit Battle

A6 | Friday, March 13, 2015
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Shiite ‘Soldiers of God’ Color Tikrit Battle
Iraq prepares to retake
city from Islamic State,
but religious overtones
of fight spark concerns
Keeping the Faith
Sectarian conflict
has plagued Iraq
since a U.S.-led
invasion toppled
Saddam Hussein
in 2003.
is R
h ra t
i v er
Heights—This mountaintop on
the edge of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights offers a
unique vantage point into how
the complexities of the Syrian
war raging in the plains below
are increasingly straining Israel’s ties with the U.S.
To the
south of this
overlook, from
which United
Nations and Israeli officers
observe the
fighting, are the positions of
the Nusra Front, the Syrian
branch of al Qaeda that the
U.S. has targeted with airstrikes.
Nusra Front, however,
hasn’t bothered Israel since
seizing the border area last
Predominant ethnoreligious groups
Associated Press
Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, center, on Thursday said he expects Tikrit to be recaptured in days.
force of 20,000 Shiite militia
fighters. Their role alongside as
many as 10,000 government soldiers has also raised questions
about plans for a more-ambitious effort to dislodge Islamic
State militants from Mosul,
Iraq’s second-largest city—an
operation in which the U.S. expects to play a major role.
Iraqi officials and militia leaders said it would be nearly impossible to keep the militias out
of the battle for Mosul, Islamic
State’s de facto capital since its
capture in June. U.S. officials
have said the Mosul offensive
would be a partnership with
Iraqi government forces, not Shiite militias.
Security officials on Thursday
said Islamic State militants remained in control of only one
part of Tikrit, a large palace
campus once used by Mr. Hussein.
Defense Minister Khaled alObeidi said he expected the city
to be fully recaptured within
Iraqi officials have expressed
surprise at the relative ease of
the operation, which began
March 2 after two attempts to
retake the city last year failed
within days.
In interviews, Shiite militia
fighters and leaders said experience gained in previous battles
against the insurgency, combined with better coordination
among the militias under Iranian
supervision, had facilitated their
gains in Tikrit.
Fighters and their commanders said they have gained battle-
field advantage over Islamic
State by using remote-controlled
drone cameras to scout its territory and by training their own
soldiers to defuse improvised explosive devices planted by the
militant group.
They said also credited cooperation by the local Sunni population in providing intelligence
on the region’s geography.
“The development of our capabilities came gradually with
experience fighting Daesh and
understanding their capabilities
and techniques,” said Abu Murtada Al Hattab, an official with
Saraya Al Jihad, a Shiite militia,
using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “We have completely understood their techniques.”
He and other commanders
100 miles
summer—and some of its severely wounded fighters are
regularly taken across the
frontier fence to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals.
To the north of Mount Bental are the positions of the
Syrian government forces and
the pro-Iranian Shiite militias
such as Hezbollah, along with
Iranian advisers. Iran and
these militias are indirectly allied with Washington in the
fight against Islamic State in
Iraq. But here in the Golan,
they have been the target of a
recent Israeli airstrike.
It would be a stretch to say
that the U.S. and Israel are
backing different sides in this
war. But there is clearly a
growing divergence in U.S. and
Israeli approaches over who
represents the biggest danger—and who should be seen,
if not as an ally, at least as a
lesser evil in the regional crisis
sparked by the dual implosion
of Syria and Iraq.
This gap isn’t just with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, whose recent public clash with President Barack
Obama over the White House’s
outreach to Iran triggered the
worst crisis in U.S.-Israeli rela-
tions in decades.
“There is no doubt that
Hezbollah and Iran are the major threat to Israel, much more
than the radical Sunni Islamists, who are also an enemy,”
said Amos Yadlin, the former
head of Israel’s military intelligence who is slated to become
minister of defense should the
center-left Zionist Union, led
by Isaac Herzog, unseat Mr.
Netanyahu in Tuesday’s elec-
Approaches as to who
is an ally in the
region, or the lesser
evil, are diverging.
Israel seized the Golan
Heights from Syria in the 1967
war. The frontier has remained
mostly peaceful despite
Nusra’s presence within a few
yards of Israeli outposts, and
the regime of Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly
highlighted that fact to depict
the rebels seeking the end of
his rule as Zionist stooges.
“Some in Syria joke: “How
can you say that al Qaeda
doesn’t have an air force? They
have the Israeli air force,” Mr.
Assad said in a January interview with Foreign Affairs magazine. “They are supporting
the rebels in Syria. It is very
Israeli officials deny this,
saying they don’t interfere in
the Syrian conflict and have no
contact with the rebels except
to provide humanitarian assistance to wounded Syrians.
But the officials also stress
that Israel views with mounting alarm the push southward
along the frontier by regime
troops and Hezbollah forces.
Frequent explosions and the
thud of shelling could be heard
this week from Mount Bental,
just above the ruins of the Syrian city of Quneitra. A few
miles to the north, an Israeli
officer was wounded on Tuesday by what the Israeli military said was sniper fire from
regime-held areas. Islamic
State isn’t yet present in this
part of Syria—its closest
strongholds are dozens of
miles away.
Israel’s border with Syria
was the country’s quietest for
four decades, as Mr. Assad and
his father, President Hafez al-
Source: Empirical Studies of Conflict, Princeton University
pointed to religion as the motivator of their fighters—an edict
issued by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric
last year calling men to arms in
defense of the nation.
“Now it is a matter of faith,”
said Abu Noor Al Jaberi, a commander with Kattaeb Sayed Al
Shuhada, a large militia involved
in Tikrit’s liberation. “Do your
job to the best of your ability
and if you die you are a martyr.
You go to paradise.”
The retreat of Islamic State
forces from the outskirts of
Tikrit goes against the carefully
cultivated image the group has
projected of its foot soldiers—
battle-hardened warriors willing
to stand their ground and face
certain death.
But military analysts said the
group may be pulling back forces
Assad, scrupulously observed
the 1974 disengagement. Instead, Damascus targeted Israel in Lebanon through Hezbollah, its junior ally.
The Syrian civil war that
began in 2011 and devastated
the Syrian army reversed that,
making Mr. Assad the dependent partner in his alliance
with Hezbollah and Iran.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, is reluctant to endanger its powerful position in Lebanon by
striking Israel from Lebanon
itself and provoking a devastating war—something that explains its interest in a foothold
on the Golan Heights.
Despite the momentary convergence of interests and the
current quiet on the border,
some Israeli officials and security analysts say they hold no
illusions about Nusra and its
ultimate goal of destroying Israel.
“It is just a matter of time
before some of these Syrian
rebels start launching attacks
against Israel,” cautioned Eyal
Zisser, the dean of the faculty
of humanities at Tel Aviv University. “Nusra is al Qaeda.
Maybe a little bit more pragmatic, but still al Qaeda.”
Heidi Levine for The Wall Street Journal
Palestinian workers placed tiles on new homes in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel on Tuesday.
and since he took office in 2009,
the number of Jewish settlers in
the West Bank has increased to
385,000 people from about
290,000, according to the Yesha
Under his government, Uriel
Ariel, the housing minister, has
issued thousands of tenders for
construction of Jewish housing
units in the territory, frequently
defying condemnation from the
U.S. and other Western governments.
Still, Mr. Netanyahu is on record as supporting a two-state
solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. In an indication that his
campaign believes it needs to
bolster his support among settlers, it said on Sunday that any
Palestinian state in the West
Bank would be taken over by Islamist extremists, declaring:
“There won’t be any withdrawals
or concessions. The matter is
simply irrelevant.”
The prime minister’s office
later issued a partial retraction
suggesting he wasn’t doing an
about-face on his support for a
two-state solution, saying he
meant only to highlight his concerns about extremists in a Palestinian state. But the statements reflected the pressure the
prime minister is under from nationalist and religious parties.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of
Jewish Home, said he wants Mr.
Netanyahu to remain Israel’s
leader but also wants to put
more pressure on him to sustain
settlement building.
Mr. Dayan said the Netanyahu
campaign’s vow of no concessions on Palestinian statehood
came too late. He said he doubts
the prime minister would stick to
his promises after the election.
“There are mornings I wake up
and I think he’s serious about
two states and other days I think
he is bluffing to the world.”
Bank—Some of Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu’s most ardent opponents in Tuesday’s
election aren’t dovish champions
of Palestinian statehood. They
are Jewish settlers in the West
Bank who want to expand Israel’s
occupation of the Palestinian territory.
Among these foes is Dani
Dayan, who has been an avid
supporter of Mr. Netanyahu. He
even stepped down as head of
the Yesha Council, a settler advocacy organization that bars candidate endorsements, so he could
support the prime minister’s reelection last year.
On Tuesday, however, Mr.
Dayan isn’t voting for Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, once considered a political home for Israelis
who view Jewish settlement of
the West Bank as a biblical mandate. As with many settlers, Mr.
Dayan wants to make sure the
three-term prime minister
doesn’t cave in to international
pressure and halt settlement expansion, despite his long commitment to building there.
“I want to put boundaries on
Netanyahu’s ability to make concessions,” said Mr. Dayan, who is
running in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections as a representative
of Jewish Home, a pro-settler religious party.
The settlers’ misgivings about
Mr. Netanyahu could siphon
votes from Likud, and their
growing clout makes it more uncertain he will get to try to form
a government.
Polls this week show Likud
slipping behind Zionist Union, an
alliance headed by the Labor
party leader, Isaac Herzog, and
Tzipi Livni, the former justice
minister who served as Mr. Netanyahu’s negotiator with the
Palestinians. Both advocate the
creation of a Palestinian state
through negotiations with Israel.
The surveys show Zionist
Union winning at least 24 seats
in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, to
21 seats for Likud. If Zionist
Union comes out ahead in the
seat count, Mr. Herzog would
likely be given the mandate to
try forming a governing coalition
supported by a parliamentary
That would be a hard task for
Mr. Herzog, because right-wing
and religious parties that oppose
him are likely to gain the biggest
bloc of remaining seats, according to the polls. If Mr. Herzog
were to fail, in the end Mr. Netanyahu would get his chance to
form a government—with a
larger pool of potential partners
to draw upon, including Jewish
Home, which polls show could
win 12 seats.
The prime minister has long
championed an Israeli presence
on West Bank land that Palestinians claim for their future state,
100 km
Settlers Step Up Pressure on Netanyahu Before Election
Syria War Adds to Divide Between U.S., Israel
By Tamer El-Ghobashy
in Baghdad and Maria
Abi-Habib in Beirut
to retake the city said the relative ease of the battle isn’t the
result of better weapons, better
strategy or even a weakened opponent.
The inspiration, they said, is
religious: They are engaged in a
holy war against Sunni extremists, legitimized by a fatwa issued last year by Iraq’s highestranking Shiite cleric.
The religious overtones of the
battle for Tikrit have stirred
concerns of fresh sectarian conflict, which has plagued Iraq
since a U.S.-led invasion toppled
Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraqi State television on
Thursday broadcast a clip showing a Shiite militia commander
purportedly speaking to an Islamic State militant over a twoway radio captured from a slain
“We are the soldiers of God,”
says the militiaman, who identifies himself as Sayed Adeeb. “We
are followers of God. We are his
soldiers on the ground.”
The purported Islamic State
militant, who begins weeping,
replies: “We won’t give you an
inch of the land of Muslims. We
will complete our martyrdom
The offensive to recapture the
Sunni city, best known as the
late dictator’s birthplace, has relied heavily on an Iran-backed
With one large section of
Tikrit remaining in the hands of
Islamic State militants and Iraq’s
government preparing to declare
victory, Shiite fighters working
to swell their ranks in Mosul, in
preparation for an assault by the
Iraqi government, which U.S. and
Iraqi officials said could begin as
early as the spring.
Pentagon officials on Thursday said they predicted that Islamic State fighters would eventually be pushed out of Tikrit.
Although the U.S. has no role
in the offensive, American officials see the operation as a litmus test for Iran to see what its
intentions are.
“We’re watching carefully and
assessing what effects will be of
the Shiite drive,” one U.S. military official said. “There will be
implications for any future Mosul campaign.”
—Dion Nissenbaum
in Washington
contributed to this article.
U.S. Over
Iran Letter
leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
said an open letter by 47 Republican senators to Iran’s leaders
warning that any nuclear deal
with the Obama administration
could be reversed was a sign of
“collapse in political ethics” in
the U.S.
International norms imply
that governments couldn’t
breach international agreements
even when their leadership
changes, Mr. Khamenei said in
an address on Thursday to the
country’s Assembly of Experts,
according to his official website.
The comments were the first
from the supreme leader on the
“Some think that the United
States does not need to act cunningly or do tricks because of its
political, economic and military
power,” Mr. Khamenei said. “But
the Americans need to use tricks
and deception a lot, and they are
doing the same now, and this reality worries us.”
The letter said any executive
order signed by President Barack Obama to enforce a nuclear
deal could be reversed by his
successor “with the stroke of a
The letter and Mr. Khamenei’s
response come at a crucial point
for the talks. The U.S. and other
nations are trying to reach an
outline deal with Iran by the end
of this month. It would limit
Iran’s ability to enrich uranium,
in exchange for lifting some of
the sanctions that have crippled
the country’s economy.
Without a framework deal in
place, the talks are unlikely to be
German Foreign Minister
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose
country is among those in talks
with Iran, said Thursday that
the letter complicated matters
by allowing Tehran to claim the
West wasn’t negotiating in
good faith.
“Iran can say to us, ‘Are you
actually trustworthy in the proposals you make if 47 senators
say that no matter what the government agrees to, we will subsequently take that off the table
again?’ ” Mr. Steinmeier said at a
think tank in Washington.
On the Senate floor, Sen. John
McCain (R., Ariz.) defended the
letter sent by the 47 senators. He
also took aim at Mr. Steinmeier,
saying he hadn’t followed through
on threats against Russian President Vladimir Putin for Moscow’s
intervention in Ukraine.
—Anton Troianovski
contributed to this article.