Ghosts of Saladin, Saddam & Khomeini: Tikrit Campaign’s Historical Meaning

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The Iraqi forces (one-third army, two-thirds Shiite militias) that are surrounding Tikrit 80 miles north of Baghdad are not just Iraqi forces. They are mostly Shiite, though some Sunni irregulars have joined them. More important, the Tikrit campaign is being directed as to its strategy by Qasim Sulaimani, the head of the Jerusalem Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

News of the imminent fall of Tikrit on Tuesday were exaggerated. On the east bank of the Tigris, Iraqi forces took the town of al-Alam, 6 miles northeast of Tikrit, from Daesh (ISIL or ISIS). But Daesh fighters blew up the bridge over the Tigris, stranding a lot of Iraqi forces to the east. Iraqi troops and militiamen are also approaching from the south and west, but they are going very slowly because of the danger of booby-traps, car bombings, and so forth. So they are still not inside Tikrit, only on its outskirts.

But the ghost of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 looms over this campaign. Qasim Sulaimani got his military start fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. A non-ideological technocrat, Sulaimani only cares about winning battles, not about what Iranians call “the line of the Imam” or correct ideology.

Saddam Hussein was born in Tikrit in 1937 into the Sunni Arab Al-Bu Nasir clan. When he became president in an internal Baath Party putsch in 1979 he promoted other Baathists from Tikrit and other members of his clan to high office.

The other historical figure born in Tikrit was the medieval Muslim knight, Saladin (Arabic Salahuddin) the Ayyubi (1138 – 1193 CE). Famed for his conquest of Jerusalem away from the Crusaders, Saladin’s dynasty also came to power in Egypt and destroyed the Shiite Fatimid government there, replacing it with a Sunni revival under the Ayyubids.

Saddam identified with Saladin on both accounts– his defeat of the Western crusaders and his defeat of the leading Shiite power of his day. He named the province in which Tikrit is located ‘Salahuddin,’ i.e. Saladin.

In 1980, Saddam Hussein had his army invade Iran, beginning a brutal 8-year struggle reminiscent of World War I, with its trench warfare, mustard gas, and high troop casualties. Iran fought Saddam off, then began besieging Basra and threatening Baghdad. But Iran could never decisively take and hold Iraqi territory, and in 1988 Ayatollah Khomeini gave up on his fond dream of regaining Iranian sovereignty over key Shiite holy sites in Iraq.

So for Qasim Sulaimani and his Jerusalem Brigades to be directing an army of Shiite militias and regular troops in taking Tikrit away from the Sunni ‘caliph’ Ibrahim al-Samarra’i, who goes by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is beyond delicious for him. It is the ultimate revenge by Shiite Iran on the Tikriti clans.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal is said to have complained to US Secretary of State John Kerry about the projection of Iranian power into Tikrit. He feels the symbolic insult to the Sunni Arab world. The Americans are afraid that they won’t be able to keep the anti-ISIL coalition together if Iran takes the lead in this way.

This Iran-Iraq sectarian subtext gives many observers pause about the Tikrit campaign. Into the bargain, we know that hundreds of Shiite troops at nearby Speicher base were summarily murdered by Daesh when it took the base last summer. Their relatives still hold demonstrations to demand justice. Shiite militiamen view the people of Tikrit as collaborators with Daesh/ ISIL and we’re all afraid that they will conduct reprisals against them if and when the city falls to them.

The only way for this to turn out well is for the Shiites to treat the Tikritis as liberated compatriots, not as collaborators with Daesh or as Saddams’s kinsmen. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq need to be offered services and perquisites for rejoining the country. If they are not, the military conquest will prove a Pyrrhic victory.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Reuters: “Celebrations as Islamic State is forced out in town near Tikrit”

31 Responses

  1. Dr Cole, thank you for a most informative post:

    In your concluding paras you write “The only way for this to turn out well is for the Shiites to treat the Tikritis as liberated compatriots, not as collaborators with Daesh or as Saddams’s kinsmen.”

    I am in search of a justification in Quran or ahadith for such an attitude. Would, for instance, Shia jurisprudence be able to cover the Tikiritis as among “those whose hearts are to be reconciled” and who are therefore able from a Qur’anic perspective to be supported by zakat (9:60)? I’m thinking of the Sunni discussion of this point and its continuing relevance in Jonathan Brown’s book, Misquoting Muhammad, pp. 96-97:

    The cryptic last group of Zakat recipients refers to the Meccan elite and the nobility of nearby tribes that had opposed the ‘Prophet to the bitter end, embracing Islam only when its triumph became a foregone conclusion. In a decision that proved controversial even among his loyal followers, Muhammad decided to direct much of the spoils of war and charity collected to this group to help them retain their wealth, standing and thus their loyalty to their new community. It was a decision justified by the strategic fragility of the Muslims’ situation.

    Winning the loyalty of the defeated would seem to be a powerful approach. Could it be applied in the circumstances you describe?

    With thanks and in peace.

      • It should be enough, but what are the odds that this reconciliation will happen?

        You are appealing to shared humanistic values, which seem to be in short supply, and outcompeted by sectarian and tribal loyalties.

  2. I believe Salahuddin was a Kurd, a descendant of Yusuf bin Ayyub. Don’t know if that helps in any way if thrown into the mix.

    Sounds like now would be a great time for Sistani to emphasize publicly and loudly that liberated Sunnis should be treated as brothers. A nice fatwa could help.

    • He’s been continuously been calling for unity and praised the residents for fighting against ISIL recently. He’s condemned attacks by Iraqi forces on civilians and stealing their properties not too long ago.

      • Dr. Cole –
        Could you expand a little more on how it was that a Kurdish leader, Saladin, replaced a Shiite government in Egypt with a Sunni regime?
        Also regarding:

        But the ghost of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 looms over this campaign. Qasim Sulaimani got his military start fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. A non-ideological technocrat, Sulaimani only cares about winning battles, not about what Iranians call “the line of the Imam” or correct ideology.

        Much is being “reported” that Sulaimani represents a very strident anti U.S. position; one that continues to spread extremist propaganda in the region. What is your take on this?
        As Usual,

  3. “He feels the symbolic insult to the Sunni Arab world.”

    A Sunni Arab world that backed Iraqi psycho Saddam in the past against the Shiites, and now created the monsters that has made it a need for the Shiites to oust them, which they lack the motivation to do so themselves against ISIL which shows a lack of seriousness against extremism, regardless if the militants are a rationale for them for Syria or just against the Iranians, what it comes down to is the overt sectarianism where they find it an insult that Shiites have influence or a role or even exist.

    • Please spare me your high-minded rhetoric Mr. Saf: I have also found most, if not all Shias, disgusted at any role for Sunnis in the Muslim world, and in fact disgusted at our very existence.

      So don’t worry, the wars will go on and on as long as the Shias also see “Wahabis” as vermin and rats.

      • Its just Saf. If not all Shias? I’m sorry, but that’s less unlikely as compared as their Sunni counterparts in terms of bigotry, and yes, one population is more likely to be steeped in prejudice than the other way, even well before these wars. I’m not being sectarian here, or the one wearing my sect on my sleeve. Its like comparing Democrats and Republicans and the false equivalence. All bad, only one is depressingly more so partisan, or in this case, sectarian. For all the things that Shia radicals have done, there’s nothing like global Sunni extremism.

        Even when PEW did a survey of global Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, their narrative of the question asked was whether Sunnis saw their Shia counterparts as Muslim. Not the other way round.

        Your point on Shias seeing ideological Wahhabis (note: not Sunnis) as that is true. But there’s a major difference and the origin of that belief isn’t from the Shias. Wahhabis are less likely to be called out as infidels to be cleansed by Shias (at least mainstream), which is actually a hallmark in Wahhabi fundamentalism that sees Shias as heretics, infidels, and liable to be killed, which is an ideology adopted in every global Sunni extremist group, who do indeed see Shias as vermin to exterminate.

        And I’ll mention it again. Canada, despite being right-wing, did accurately name its top foreign and domestic terrorist threat as being Sunni Islamist terrorists, particularly radicals of the ideological Wahhabi/Salafi kind. You can take it up with them why they specifically named those ideological strands negatively too.

    • Now we be a good time for the Saudi Foreign Minister to put up or shut up. It is the Iraqi Shi’ites and the Kurds that are providing the boots on the ground in the battle against ISIS. All the Saudis have done is mount a few token air strikes. A good start for the Saudi government would be to stop their nationals from funding ISIS.

  4. I think that Daesh elements and those who helped them should be punished. Part of trouble in Iraq is that Sunni minority has not accepted the rule of majority. Reconciliation cannot happen if Sunnis do not accept that their old hegemony and bossing over Shiites is over.

    • Let us cut to the truth of the matter: Is there any one from the Shia elements who does not think the Sunnis “should be punished” for some thing or the other?

      We need this answer first, because no Sunni will accept to live with a group whose only thought is revenge.

  5. this is a failed campaign. iraq has already split up into three as many predicted it might. blowing up sunni cities is a failed policy. first fallujah, now tikrit, later mosul. failed policy. bad idea. what came of the 2003 invasion? fallujah. what came of fallujah? isis. what came of isis? bigger fallujahs. this is a disaster. glad we are not directly participating.

    • You should not only refrain into participating even more now tan big oil pressure will be at its lowest until at least 2017. Put a security ring around the middle east to keep unwanted arms traders and be the only providers to all the diferent factions according to your needs, help them blow the wells an distelleries and perform al the brutalities they are so keen in doing : believe that by 2020 whwn the oil surplus has sent the barrel back to 100 , there will be as much half of them left .
      This is usually called greed an inhumanity , but is what has been hapening for the lar hundreds of years.
      To close I recomend a reading of The Prince

  6. But the credit goes to Daesh, its thuggish rule and primitive world view. ISIS inhabitant’s wishes for liberation and a promise to keep Daesh down and out, enter Iraq’s PMU (trained and equipped by Iran, their salaries’ are paid by Iraq) and as more Sunni population is freed, their participation and confidence in Daesh destruction will increase.

  7. There are only a few letters differing Tikritis from Takfiris! Quite insignificant! One must always keep in mind–my Hindu friends insist–Krishna’s admonitions to Arjuna about eliminating enemies.

    • If my memory of the Gita is not wrong it was Arjuna who had emotions on killing friends and familiars and Krishna who urged him to

      • Haha. Finally, someone got it. By the time the dust is settled in Iraq and Syria, the Sunnis will make up 1-2 percent of the population.

  8. What happens in Iraq after Daesh is defeated will be up to the Iraqis and only the Iraqis. For the U.S., defeating Daesh, especially with Iranian aid, will throw a big monkey wrench into Netanyahu’s and the Republican plans for war. Obama’s decision to bomb Daesh is working as well as could be expected. Mosul is next.

    Once Daesh is driven out of Iraq, basically they’ll be trapped in eastern Syria with limited sources of revenue and realistically not much of a threat to anyone. Daesh will have their military capability degraded and end up being a ‘lil pissant bunch of Sunni fanatics. Their European warriors will go home.

  9. Thank you, Juan Cole, for insights, as usual.
    The best that can come from the conflagration in Iraq is that Shia and Sunni factions may finally see the light, viz., that conflicting religious beliefs must be accepted–peacefully. Second, Iraq must see that extremism is no longer acceptable in their country nor in the Middle East. Third, Iraq is in a good position to signal to the world that religious freedom is a universal value of human beings, and therefore, Iraq should consider taking the initiative in human tolerance–towards Christians and Jews alike. This would be a step forward in redeeming its decade of warfare and striving for peace, which will set the stage for further democratic values inherent in ALL of humanity, but which is sorely lacking in too many neighbors of Iraq. Let Iraq show a sense of its history of suffering through sectarianism. Let Iraq be delivered from its hatreds and religious apprehensions by, finally, after such great suffering, so much foreign bloodshed, show a new face and turn its back to its religious intolerance, and become a beacon of human values that have never yet materialized in so many corners of a land with biblical forebears and brilliant humanists who knew that peace of mind will only follow the human characteristics of love, tolerance and understanding.

    • Re: Robert N. Schwartz – Mar 13 @ 1:31 AM
      Having read your comment carefully several times, and trying to discern what lies beneath your polemic rhetoric and sectarian proselytizing, it occurred to me that you may not actually realize that the human quest for “, tolerance and understanding.” is not limited to, or historically founded upon, any monotheistic sectarian belief system; be it Judaism, christianity, or islam. Modern understanding of human history has provided factual anthropological and archeological evidence that when sectarian dogma is imposed upon thriving secular human societies, aforesaid “tolerance and understanding” descend into avarice and hatred, and the ultimate decline of social and political order.
      My hope is that humankind will indeed revisit enlightened understanding and reason, join together in putting an end to the death and destruction of this dark period of human history, and pursue the quest for peaceful tranquility for all.
      “Work is love made visible.” KG
      As Usual,

  10. Soleimani is admired and loved by the Kurds and Shi’is alike. The generals in the mercenary army of the Pentagon should kiss his @$$ and learn to grow a pair–at least collectively!

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