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Liberating Tikrit

In January 2015, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that a campaign to retake Tikrit would be launched within a month. Sunnis feared that Shia militias would seek revenge for past sectarian violence, such as the massacre of 1,700 young Shia recruits when Daesh, aided by local Sunni tribes, captured the city in 2014.

“This was put together by the Iraqis, formulated by the Iraqis, executed by the Iraqis, and that’s the best thing all of us could, frankly, ask for,” said John Kerry, the US secretary of state. “So we take it the way it is and we’ll hope for the best results.”

The security committee of the Salahadin provincial council announced 21 February 2015 that preparations for attack to recapture the ISIS-held city of Tikrit were complete. “Salahaddin operations command, police command and the People’s Mobilization Forces [PMF] have finished preparations to start attacking ISIS militants and drive them out in Tikrit. I would say appointing a zero hour is closer than ever,” said Jasim Jabara, head of the security committee.

Large convoys of Shiite fighters carrying flags and blaring battle songs began arriving in the government-held city of Samarra, 40 miles south of Tikrit, on 21 February 2015. The Iranian-backed militias Kitaeb Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization and Hashd al-Shaabi / Hashd Shaabi “popular mobilisation units / People’s Mobilization Forces” [which answer to Tehran, not Baghdad] all confirmed that they had dispatched convoys of fighters to Samarra. More than 10,000 militiamen had gathered.

The Iranian Islamic Revolution Guards Corps took part in the offensive led by Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani. In an unprecedented move, the Iraqi government and parliament officially requested General Soleimani to oversee the operation by supervising and advising Iraqi forces. Effectively, this meant the Iranian general will be commanding the joint Iraqi-Iranian offensive on Tikrit. The Iranian commander, who enjoyed a great deal of influence among Shia militias in Iraq, arrived in the vicinity of Tikrit on 28 February 2015 and was received by a large crowd of Iraqi army leaders, soldiers, and Iraqi civilians hailing his presence.

On 01 March about 27,000-30,000 Iraqi troops commenced their attack on Tikrit. The operation involved elements of the Iraqi army, the paramilitary federal police, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), Kurdish peshmerga fighters and the predominately Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). Iraqi troops and militia fighters attacked Islamic State militants in a key area north of Baghdad 02 March 2015, the first full day of a highly publicized offensive to recapture the city of Tikrit. Ground troops advanced on multiple fronts with support from airstrikes, military commanders said.

According to al-Araby al-Jadeed, some 13,000 Islamic State militants were fighting the battle in Tikrit. But Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in March 2015 that there were only “hundreds” of jihadists in Tikrit.

Iraqi forces’ operation to retake the city of Tikrit stalled by 15 March 2015 as troops suffered heavy casualties at the hands of Islamic State militants, raising doubts about whether the pro-government fighters were ready for major offensives. After two days of little activity on the battlefield, Iraq’s interior minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, confirmed that the offensive had “temporarily stopped.” The steady flow of caskets arriving in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf suggests a reason for the pause; cemetery workers said as many as 60 war dead had been arriving each day.

Three weeks after it started, by 21 March 2015 the Iraqi government operation to retake the city of Tikrit from the self-proclaimed Islamic State remained stalled, while the government and militias remain divided after suffering greater casualties than anticipated. A two-day pause supposedly intended to give the Iraqi government time to bring up reinforcements stretched into a week. At least 1,000 militiamen had died in the early days of fighting, according to some reports, roughly 5% of the 20,000 men in the militias.

CIA Director John Brennan said 22 March 2015 that Soleimani – and Tehran, at large – could destabilize Iraq even further once the Islamic State is defeated. Brennan called General Soleimani “very aggressive and active,” and expressed fears that he and the Iranian government could forge a close ties with Iraq, only to turn against Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis. "We’re not letting them play that role," Brennan said. "I think they’re working with the Iraqis to play that role. We’re working with the Iraqis, as well." Going further, Brennan said he "wouldn’t consider Iran an ally right now inside Iraq."

Coalition and Iraqi planes struck a complex of palaces in Tikrit on 26 March 2015 where Islamic State militants had been holding out for more than three weeks. US-led coalition planes launched their first airstrikes against IS targets in Saddam Hussein’s home town on 25 March 2015 to aid Iraqi forces fighting alongside Iran-backed Shiite militia on the ground. “The Iraqi air force with the coalition air force have conducted air strikes targeting the presidential palaces that are the headquarters of IS leaders and groups,” Defense Ministry spokesman Brigadier Tahseen Ibrahim Sadiq said.

Amy Goodman observed "The US airstrikes now squarely put Washington and Tehran on the same side in the fight, though the Obama administration insists it is not coordinating military operations with Iran. The Pentagon stressed that the airstrikes are aimed to help Iraqi forces defeat the Islamic State, but by all accounts it has been Iranian-backed militias leading the ground attack."

US Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Commmittee 26 March 2015 a number of preconditions had to be met before the US-led coalition would rescue of the stalled offensive. “Once those conditions were met, which included Shiite militias not being involved [in the operation], then we were able to proceed,” he said. “They didn’t have a coherent scheme of maneuver, [or] command and control. They didn’t have precision fires to support this effort. And so trying to go about the difficult task of clearing a place like Tikrit without that caused them to stall.” After “three tours in Iraq commanding [US] troops who were brutalized by some of these Shiite militias, I will not and I hope we never coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias.”

General Lloyd Austin, who oversees US operations in Iraq, told the Senate on the US military had highlighted a number of preconditions to be met before the US would join the fight for Tikrit. “Once those conditions were met, which included Sh'iite militias not being involved, then we were able to proceed,” he said. Austin said the forces originally fighting for Tikrit did not have a coherent plan of attack or an organized command and control system. “These forces obviously were not being controlled by the government of Iraq,” he said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, declaring victory over Islamic State in the strategic city of Tikrit, said 01 April 2015 that his government was "determined to liberate every inch of Iraqi land." Abadi walked through the streets of the city Wednesday, calling the recapture of Tikrit a "milestone." But in Washington, the Pentagon said Iraqi forces were still meeting pockets of resistance from hundreds of militants, adding that the Iraqis controlled the city center and the main government headquarters.

Tikrit fell after a weeks-long assault, and Hadi al-Ameri, head of Iraq's powerful Shia militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), poured scorn on the role played by US airpower, dismissing the importance of American-led airstrikes in assisting the Iraqis’ hard-won victory over the so-called Islamic State. “If the Iraqi government wants to be thankful to the United States for the Tikrit operation, let them be. But we will not give credit to the U.S.-led coalition and we don’t need them here,” said al-Ameri, highlighting the fragility of the makeshift alliance battling to dislodge the militants from northwest and central Iraq.

Fears of massacres od Sunni by Shia militias proved unfounded, as Tikrit was entirely emptied of people and there was no one to massacre. As one Shia observer put it, "only" about 60 Sunni properties were burnt or destroyed in revenge (others put the figure at up to 200), and not many Sunnis were murdered.

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Page last modified: 08-12-2015 19:04:44 ZULU