As it comes to the aid of Mideast allies, the United States is straddling both sides of a regional sectarian war — one where Washington is simultaneously fighting and supporting Shiite militias that are backed by Iran.
In Iraq, American warplanes this week finally joined a stalemated assault against the Islamic State in Tikrit. The battle initially was launched by Iraqi security forces, Iranian commanders, and thousands of Shiite militiamen — many of whom fought with military and intelligence support provided by Tehran. The United States says it joined the fight only after being assured that the Iraqi government was leading the battle, and that the militias most closely linked to Iran had left.
In Yemen, the United States is funneling intelligence and logistics support to Saudi Arabia in its bombing campaign against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, who have dislodged the Sunni government in Sanaa. Riyadh is keenly focused on attacking targets in Yemen that are linked to Iran, meaning that the United States will likely provide real-time intelligence to carry out those strikes, experts said.
With the two major Mideast air campaigns — one in tacit alliance with Iran, the other against it — the United States “maintains that in each instance, it is supporting the legitimate, elected government of the country,” said Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan.