More than 25,000 Iraqi troops and militia fighters began a long-awaited operation Monday to retake the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State in what many see as a test of the central government’s ability to retake and hold much of the territory lost to the militant group last summer.
The operation was announced Monday morning by Iraqi state television and came just one day after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi warned the restive Sunni tribes of central Iraq, many of which have sided with the proto-caliphate, that this was their last chance to rejoin the Iraqi central government.
Although the Iraqi army and its Iranian-trained and -equipped Shiite militia allies have attempted to capture Tikrit in the past, only to suffer embarrassing defeats at the hands of the well-equipped and disciplined Islamic State fighters, Monday’s operation appeared to be the most serious attempt yet, as tens of thousands of troops, militias and even a handful of local Sunni tribesmen encircled the city from four sides and began pushing into its center behind a heavy wave of artillery, rocket and airplane bombardment.
Capt. Ahmed Hilal al Jubouri, in a telephone interview from the main operations center in the nearby city of Samara, said that overnight the Iraqi air force had hit more than 30 Islamic State targets after a day of artillery and rocket fire pounded the city from the south, the northwest and from the northeast. He also said coalition aircraft had conducted a number of strikes in the area. But at the Pentagon, spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said the U.S. is not providing airstrikes in support of the ground offensive because the Iraqi government did not request it. He said the U.S. was alerted to the offensive before it started Monday.
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The main obstacle so far to the operation has been thousands of roadside bombs and booby-traps planted by the Islamic State in the approaches to the city, which Iraqi combat engineers have been dismantling at a furious rate, Jubouri said.
“All precautions have been taken for the success of the military operation and taking into account a thousand roadside bombs planted by Daash on various buildings and on the roads, the engineering brigade effort initiated the process to dismantle those mines – more than 200 explosive device and more than 10 large car bombs were planted and ready to explode near the popular committee forces and security forces,” he said. Daash is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, and the phrase “popular committee forces” is often used by Iraqi officials to describe the Shiite militias.
Taking Tikrit is seen as an essential first step in securing Iraq’s strategic north-south highway, which links the capital, Baghdad, to Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which has been controlled by the Islamic State since last June. Any operation to recapture Mosul, which will be a far bloodier and more complex undertaking than Tikrit, would require control over this highway before any major preparations could begin.
However, the high-profile role of the Iranian-backed militias – the Iranian Fars News Agency said a top Iranian commander, Gen. Qassam Suilamani, was directing the operation in person – might further exacerbate sectarian tensions in Iraq, where securing the cooperation of Iraq’s large Sunni tribal population, which is openly suspicious of both the Shiite government and Iran, is considered essential to dealing with the Islamic State threat over the long term.
But a spokesman for a Sunni tribal council in the province of Salahuddin said that his group was calling on all tribal fighters to cooperate with the government both to defeat the Islamic State and to protect the lives and homes of civilians in the area.
“All the tribes of the province of Salahuddin stand side by side with the security forces and support the restoration of the province and bringing its people (home) as soon as participants confirmed that the tribes in the province are not responsible for anyone who has blood on his hands or cooperated with Daash in shedding Iraqi blood,” said the spokesman, Dr. Issa Mazrui. “(The council) also stresses the need to avoid any risk to unarmed civilians and the preservation of their property and their homes and not to conduct violations that occurred in Diyala.”
The Shiite militia groups – Capt. Jubouri said at least 10,000 men from the militias were participating, along with 10,000 Iraqi army troops and about 5,000 Sunni tribal fighters – have been frequently and credibly accused by Sunnis of conducting reprisal attacks on Sunni property and civilians in neighboring Diyala province, where widespread reports of the destruction of homes and summary executions of suspected Islamic State supporters.
The violence has left many people concerned about the possibility of fierce revenge in Tikrit, which was the scene of an infamous massacre of at least 1,000 Shiite volunteer militiamen and unarmed Iraqi air force cadets captured by the Islamic State. In a series of gristly videos released last summer on the Internet, Islamic State fighters were seen systematically torturing and executing hundreds of these prisoners in a massacre at the one-time American military base Camp Speicher, which Iraqi security forces have recently taken control of and are using as a jumping off point for the offensive northwest of the city center.
In a series of meetings with Sunni tribes before the offensive began, a top Shiite militia leader, Hadi al Amiri, assured the local tribes that his men would not be taking revenge for that massacre. Most residents of Tikrit have fled the city well in advance of the attack, and multiple reports from the ground indicate that the artillery and air support have been indiscriminate in striking targets throughout the area.
One local resident, who refused to be identified out of fear of both the Islamic State and the Shiite security forces, said that in the past week at least a dozen top foreign Islamic State leaders who had previously been publicly visible in preparing the town’s defenses had left the city in advance of the assault. The tribal source said the Islamic State garrison had been left in the hands of local Iraqi leaders.
At least 5,000 civilians fled the city in the 72 hours proceeding the offensive, according to Capt. Jubouri, and many reported that other civilians who attempted to leave had been executed by the Islamic State in the streets as a warning to the civilian population not the flee the town.
By nightfall Monday, the Iraqi security forces were reporting that they had pushed to within three miles of the city center, but this could not be independently confirmed, and the Iraqi government has frequently exaggerated success on the ground during similar operations in the past.
Two local special correspondents, one in Irbil and one in Baghdad, contributed to this report but cannot be identified for safety reasons.