The drive by Iraqi forces to liberate the city of Tikrit from ISIS seemed to have been going fairly well. Just a few days ago, the Iraqi government was said to be gearing up for the “final push” against the Islamic State. Analysts were speculating about how the first recapture of an Iraqi city from ISIS would rock the head-choppers on their heels, while creating a new set of logistical problems for the victorious alliance of Iraqi army units and Shiite militias as they sought to exploit the breakthrough and push the invaders back to the Syrian border.
Today, the Iraqi government issued a surprising statement that they were suspending the battle for Tikrit, ostensibly because they are worried about collateral damage to the city and civilian casualties. The AFP news service notes this explanation is a bit hard to swallow, since “it is unclear how stopping operations against the jihadists for anything other than an extended siege would change either of those situations, unless Iraqi forces receive additional external support such as air strikes.”
One bit of noteworthy collateral damage from the intense fighting in Tikrit was the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s tomb. “Poster-sized pictures of Saddam, which once covered the mausoleum, are now nowhere to be seen amid the mountains of concrete rubble. Instead, Shiite militia flags and photos of militia leaders mark the predominantly Sunni village,” NBC News reported. The dictator’s remains were supposedly removed from the tomb by loyalists before ISIS took over.
The rest of the AFP report contains disturbing implications that the Iraq government has not been honest about its progress against ISIS in Tikrit, so the indefinite halt of operations could be a tacit admission that the “big final push” is not ready to go yet. Iraqi Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban conceded that “we stopped first of all to limit losses in the ranks of our heroic forces,” which is certainly a fair reason for a strategic pause while reinforcements and increased American air power are brought to bear, but it doesn’t mesh well with status reports on the Tikrit operation from last week. Three previous assaults on Tikrit have failed, but this one was supposed to be different. Opposition leaders in the Iraqi government have been asking how a supposedly tiny, exhausted, surrounded band of ISIS holdouts is able to hold an immense government and militia force at bay.
There is also a disturbing suggestion that Baghdad has less-than-desirable command over the various forces arrayed against ISIS in Tikrit: “While Ghabban is responsible for his ministry’s forces, he is not the overall commander of the operation, and the myriad militias and army forces involved could have other plans.” It is not encouraging for any strategic planner to learn that some of his forces have “other plans” for a massive operation that will end in brutal close-quarters combat through the streets of a city the enemy has been busy booby-trapping for the past nine months.
The potential for friendly-fire catastrophe under such conditions is high, and there is reason to suspect not all of the “friendly fire” and “collateral damage” would be accidental. “There has been intense international pressure to avoid civilian casualties and revenge attacks on people or property in an offensive by a mostly Shiite force in a hub of the so-called Sunni triangle,” reports the New York Times. “Around two-thirds of the pro-government force is made up of the mostly Shiite militias now known as popular mobilization forces.” The Shiites do not have fond memories of Saddam’s reign, and the dictator’s Baathist dead-enders have been quite accommodating to the Sunni ISIS invaders.
It’s a little strange to hear the Iraqi commanders complaining that they haven’t gotten enough American air support for the Tikrit operation – in fact, the top officer in the Salaheddin province claims he hasn’t been getting any. How could that be true, on the eve of what was supposed to be the final showdown for control of the provincial capital?