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Gen. Allen: Iran's Involvement Complicates Anti-ISIS Effort


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Two important battles are taking shape in Iraq in the fight against the self-declared Islamic State. One is happening now in the city of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. The other is yet to happen. But when it does, it could prove a turning point in this new war - that will be the battle for Mosul.

The man working behind the scenes to coordinate the international effort against ISIS is retired U.S. General John Allen. He just marked six months on the job. We're joined by reporter Teri Schultz, who covers NATO for NPR. She has just had an exclusive interview with General Allen in Brussels after he visited Iraq. Good morning, Teri.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start with Tikrit. The battle is being waged by the Iraqi government against ISIS. But Iran is playing a key role in this. They've got advisors on the ground helping those Iraqi forces. There are Iranian elements of those militias. What does General Allen say about Iran's role? Is it considered welcome help from the U.S. perspective?

SCHULTZ: Well, certainly from the Iraqi perspective it's considered welcome help. And General Allen is cautious. He says no one should really be surprised Iran is involved. He says the issue is how Iran is involved. And in this case, as you mentioned, Iran and Iraq and even the U.S. have common cause against the self-proclaimed Islamic State or ISIS. But General Allen says while Iran is playing a constructive role in the current phase of the international fight against ISIS, that role can't change, he says, into one that would support sectarianism or possibly revenge against the Sunni populations. Here's how he put it.

GENERAL JOHN ALLEN: It's one thing to help. It's another thing to have an influence which in the end works against the reasons that we've all come to Iraq which is to restore Iraq as a whole country.

MARTIN: So we just talked about Iran clearly playing an important role in Tikrit. But Iraq has asked for the U.S. to conduct airstrikes in and around Tikrit. Is that likely? Might the U.S. get involved there?

SCHULTZ: Well, if there weren't this heavy Iranian presence in the Tikrit area, as we've been discussing - the Iranian armed militias and the Iranian nationals advising them on the ground - that would be much easier calculation for the U.S. government to make. But as it is, it's complicated. However, General Allen emphasizes that while it's obviously not his decision, he believes Washington is giving serious consideration to granting Iraq's requests for airstrikes in Tikrit.

ALLEN: It wouldn't be at all a surprise if we began to work closely with them on this. They're going to have a conversation with us to see how we might be able to help. And so let's unfold for a few days. That's a possibility.

MARTIN: Teri, Tikrit has been seen as something of a precursor to the next big fight in Iraq - the battle to retake Mosul. Just this past week, the Iraqi government dropped leaflets over the city urging residents to resist ISIS and to be ready to cooperate with government forces. Is this a sign that an offensive might be coming soon? Did he say anything about this?

SCHULTZ: He says this is likely the first stage in what he says is an elaborate plan with such a major battle as Mosul ahead. He called the leaflets part of shaping the area ahead of the military action. He says that's trying to the population over to the side of the government forces that will be coming in which reduces the enemy's capabilities in advance. So then you'll have the military action, and General Allen is increasingly emphasizing the phase after that. So he says the planning is very, very serious and all the way through to stabilization. And it's very time-consuming. So he suggests the leaflets don't necessarily mean military operations are imminent.

ALLEN: Mosul's going to be big when it goes. And so going when they're ready is what's most important thing, not going according to some timeline or some deadline.

MARTIN: We've been talking about ISIS in Iraq, but of course the group is still operating in Syria as well which is a vexing problem for the U.S. Based on your conversation with General Allen, is the U.S. strategy, the international strategy, to degrade ISIS and its capacity to do damage, or to get rid of the organization altogether?

SCHULTZ: Well, General Allen's plan is certainly to put an end to ISIS altogether, but he says if it's not done right and done comprehensively, it's going to be very difficult to do that. And ISIS will just continue to morph into other forms. So he emphasizes that the military component is just one way of fighting ISIS. And inside this 62 nation coalition, they're also working on counter-messaging. They're working on counter-financing. He says the ISIS loss of the Syrian town of Kobani was a big factor and that he expects Iraqi victories, especially in Mosul, would strike a real blow to the organization's appeal to would-be followers.

ALLEN: It begins to diminish its capacity. And when you diminish its capacity, you diminish its attractiveness because it can't, any longer, uphold its own doctrine. And all of those things together make it much more difficult to sustain itself.

SCHULTZ: The problem with that, Rachel, is that even with these initial ISIS losses on the battlefield, for now, fighters are still flowing into Iraq and Syria faster than the coalition airstrikes are taking out the ones already there.

MARTIN: Teri Schultz - she covers the European Union and NATO for NPR. She had an exclusive interview with General John Allen, the coordinator of the international effort against ISIS. Teri, thanks so much.

SCHULTZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.