The nonmilitary victories in Iraq's battle of Tikrit

The Iraqi Army's advance against Islamic State in the city of Tikrit reflects not only a military win but greater inclusion of Sunni and Shiite and, perhaps, a decline in Iraq's cycle of revenge killings.

Residents welcome a relative who is part of militias known as Hashid Shaabi, in the town of al-Alam near Tikrit March 10. Iraqi troops and militias drove Islamic State insurgents out of al-Alam on Tuesday, clearing a final hurdle before the assault on Saddam Hussein's home city of Tikrit in their biggest offensive yet against the ultra-radical group.

A majority of Americans back the idea of sending combat troops to Iraq to defeat Islamic State, a poll finds. Yet such an action may not be needed. On Wednesday, the Iraqi Army, in its first major test since collapsing last year to an IS advance, entered IS-controlled Tikrit, a city just 80 miles north of Baghdad.

While the military battle for Tikrit is itself significant – a prelude to taking back the second largest city, Mosul – what was striking was not military in nature.

Rather, the advance revealed a new spirit of political inclusion. Both Sunnis and Shiites were at the front, either in the Army or related militias. And before the battle, both Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for no revenge killings of Sunni civilians in Tikrit who might have been forced to assist IS. Mr. Abadi even offered an amnesty to residents.

Breaking Iraq’s cycle of revenge and retribution remains its biggest challenge 12 years after the American invasion and more than a year after IS took over a third of the country. The solution largely lies in reestablishing an Iraqi national identity. Specifically, Abadi must fulfill a promise by his Shiite-dominated government to provide opportunity and integration to minority Sunnis as well as ethnic Kurds.

If the 200,000 Sunnis of a liberated Tikrit can be convinced to embrace the central government, then hope will rise for the Army rolling back IS elsewhere. It might also accelerate political progress toward nonsectarian government. Such steps are needed to prevent Iraq from continuing to be used as a proxy battleground by Shiite-led Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia in a contest between Islam’s two main branches.

When Abadi became leader last year, the country’s democracy was renewed and Iraqis may have felt a growing spirit of equality, an essential ingredient for any nation’s identity. Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have a long history of living together, and even intermarrying. The more they embrace that inclusive past, the more other nations, such as Iran, or groups, such as IS, will lose in their grab for control or territory. In addition, Iraq will not need to ask the United States to send combat troops to fight IS.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.