Iraqi Tikrit offensive stalls
The Iraqi army and Shia militias trying to retake the city of Tikrit from Islamic State forces paused their offensive over the weekend, claiming they need reinforcements while simultaneously saying they want to avoid civilian casualties and preserve infrastructure.
The 30,000 government troops are facing a much smaller force of IS fighters and are apparently unable to advance beyond the fringes of the city.
Iraqi officials and allied militia leaders have been saying since last week that they are in control of the battlefield. They said that they had surrounded the handful of Islamic State fighters remaining in Tikrit, and that full government control would be restored there in a matter of days.
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. Around two-thirds of the pro-government force is made up of the mostly Shiite militias now known as popular mobilization forces.
As the days pass, critics are asking why the government’s 30,000-strong force has been unable to dislodge the last Islamic State fighters — and whether the reduced pace is a bad sign for future efforts to root the militants out of their self-declared capital, the much larger city of Mosul.
“There is a minimum amount of Daesh fighters in Tikrit,” said Alaa Makki, a former lawmaker and a member of the mostly Sunni Islamic Party, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “They are controlling the situation there — wow!”
But Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, Iraq’s interior minister, said the pause was deliberate and temporary.
“We want to give the people of Tikrit the chance to evacuate their areas in order to save their lives, and also to try as much as possible to preserve the infrastructure of the city,” he said in an interview on the state television channel Al Iraqiya.
“We don’t want the city to be destroyed, and we want to try to reduce the number of casualties among the security forces,” he added.
If they really are trying to avoid civilian casualties and damage to buildings, why are they calling for more air strikes in the central city against IS fighters?
Iraq said on Monday it had put its Tikrit offensive on hold and senior officials called for more air strikes to dislodge Islamic State militants who have laid explosives across Saddam Hussein's home city and still hold its central districts.
The offensive, the largest yet against insurgents who swept through northern Iraq in June, has been stalled for four days after Iraqi security forces and mainly Shi'ite militia pushed into Tikrit last week.
They have struggled to gain further ground against the militants who are holed up in a vast complex of palaces built when Saddam was in power.
Military officials in Tikrit said there was no fighting on Monday in the city that was home to more than 250,000 people before it was overrun last year.
Government forces are in control of most of the northern Qadisiya district as well as the southern and western outskirts of the city, trapping the militants in an area bounded by the river that runs through Tikrit. Though Iraqi forces and allied militiamen may have the insurgents in a chokehold, officials are increasingly citing air power as necessary to drive out the remaining insurgents.
"We need air support from any force that can work with us against IS," Deputy Minister of Defence Ibrahim al-Lami told Reuters, declining to say whether he meant from the U.S.-led coalition or Iran, which is playing a role in the assault.
The U.S.-led coalition has been conspicuously absent from the offensive, the biggest to be undertaken by Iraqi forces since Islamic State seized around a third of the country last summer including Tikrit.
Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghaban said authorities had put a temporary halt to the offensive in Tikrit, capital of the mainly Sunni Muslim Salahuddin province.
"We have decided to halt military operations in Salahuddin in order to reduce casualties among our heroic forces... and to preserve the remaining infrastructure," the minister said at a news conference in the city of Samarra, 95 kilometres (60 miles) north of Baghdad.
"The situation is under control and we will choose the appropriate time to attack the enemy and liberate the area".
Where is Baghdad Bob when you need him?
The contradictory explanations for why the Iraqi army can't make progress against a "handful" of IS fighters reveals the truth about the situation: the Iraqi army has bitten off more than it can chew and is looking for U.S. air power to do its dirty work and bail it out. If civilians are going to die – and you can bet a lot of them will be lost if the U.S. launches air strikes in the heavily populated urban area – the Iraqis don't want to be blamed for it.
This is still an army not ready for prime time. Being outnumbered doesn't seem to faze IS forces, and, as they showed in Kobani, they've developed a knack for holding on against superior forces and firepower. It took dozens of coalition air strikes to finally lever Islamic State fighters out of Kobani, nearly leveling the city in the process. Tikrit is nearly ten times larger than Kobani, and any hope to avoid large-scale destruction and civilian casualties in order to retake the city appears delusional.