This update is about the battle to free Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein from the jaws of the Islamic fanatics, who call themselves the Islamic State (IS). I am talking about this battle because it is the most recent episode in the escalating new war and the dangers it is posing to the peace and security of the whole world. Tikrit, is an Iraqi city, of about a quarter of a million inhabitants, which is located a 100 mile northwest of Baghdad on the Tigris River, in the heart of the Sunni triangle. The town fell to IS militants last June, during their advance towards Baghdad, after their stunning success in subjugating the second largest city in the country, Mosul. The battle for Tikrit commenced about two weeks ago, when a 30,000 group which is made of mainly Shiite militia, a powerful Iranian crowd from the so called the Quds brigade under the command of General Qassem Suleimani, plus a smaller number of Iraqi army soldiers and very few Sunni fighters from loyal tribes, to wrest control of the city from the hands of the militants, but without the US and its allies. These strange mixtures was able during the first few days of the attack to push the militants from their positions on the outskirts of the city and forced them to aggregate into the center the town, were their guerrilla tactics forced the Iraqi forces to pause and halt their advance.
Tikrit is best known for its association with Saddam Hussein and his regime. Many senior members of the Iraqi government and soldiers and senior army personnel during his rule were drawn from there, Saddam Hussein was buried in his hometown of Al-Awja which is a village 8 miles south of Tikrit, following his hanging on December 30, 2006. However, during the subsequent American occupation of the country, the city became the scene of a number of insurgent attacks against the occupation forces, and on June 11, 2014, during their Northern Iraq offensive, the Islamic State took control of the city, the next day the Islamic State executed 1,566 Iraqi Air Force cadets from Camp Speicher at Tikrit. By July 2014 the government forces had withdrawn from the city, until March 2015, when the Iraqis launched an operation to retake it.
On March 1, the Iraqis commenced their attack on Tikrit, the assault which was carried out by a mixture of 30,000 participants, an act which has been billed as a joint operation involving Iraqi government military and special forces, and 18,000 Shia militia plus a very big group of Iranian fighters from their revolutionary guard semi military force known as the al-Quds brigade under the command of its commandant general Qassem Soleimani who was overseeing the operation. To this assortment was added few Sunnis from government allied Sunni tribes, but one notable absentee was the United States and its allies. The Iraqis and their allies were able to make some progress during the first few days of the attack, gaining control of areas which were controlled by the militants on the outskirts of the city, and driving the militants into the center of town, which they said [the attackers] that they were going to clear the militants out of it in the very near future, but it was not to be like that, because the militants were resisting the government’s advance very strongly using guerilla tactics which they have been employing and continually updating during their previous encounters with the government forces which forced the attackers to pause and halt their advance. The attack is still on hold today when I am trying to finish this piece. So why it was that they were unable to finish the job in spite of their superiority in numbers and equipment, and when they claimed at the start of the operation that it will take them only few days.
So why they haven't, the jihadists has been preparing for this battle, for a long time, they are embedded in the town’s center, and the Iraqi-led fighters say that the militants have used snipers and IEDs—improvised explosive devices—to create a dangerous fortress, “It’s street to street now,” they said, in fact neither the Iraqi national forces nor the Shi’ite militias are trained for this sort of operation, the militants are well trained and highly experienced fighters, many having fought the Americans during the Iraq war, and they concentrate on defending and holding their own territory, and not to advance on the forces which are attacking them. On the other the plethora of groups which was aligned against them was made of very diverse and competing groups, each one of them was serving their own masters and the political groupings they followed. The Iraqi army has reclaimed territory elsewhere in the past with the help of the US-led coalition and its air strikes, but those have been conspicuously absent this time. That may be because of the involvement of the Iranians in what has become the biggest offensive yet against ISIS in Iraq. Images posted online claim to show American Abrams and Iranian Safir-74 tanks side by side moving against IS positions in the Saladin Governorate, while Major General Qasem Soleimani, who coordinates Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, has been photographed on the battlefield. But as I have just mentioned a little while, the advance on Tikrit has slowed, and there’s no telling for how long this battle might take, but one hope that the halting progress made so far will be giving some in Washington and Baghdad pause for thought.
The Tikrit operation has been seen as a trial run for the eventual operation to retake Mosul, one that U.S. and Iraqi officials have suggested might happen as soon as the Spring. But the longer this battle goes on, the less likely IS will be driven from its Iraqi stronghold any time soon, for the single reason that the Americans and their Iraqi clients have no experience with the kind of war the Islamic state is waging. Neither a good understanding of the militant group itself, or its origins or the true nature of the threat that it poses, in spite of the trillion dollar infrastructure of intelligence, law enforcement and military operations against the Islamic state predecessor, al-Qaeda, the United States has built, which has helped make terrorist attack on US soil exceedingly rare, which in that sense has worked, but the system they have built is not suited for dealing with IS, which presents a totally different sort of challenge.
IS is an outgrowth from the old radical Islamic organization, the bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda, it represents the next phase in its evolution, the post al-Qaeda jihadist threat, the Islamic State shares with al-Qaeda, its ideology, its rhetoric and long term goals, nonetheless, a straight line should be drawn between the two. IS has in fact supplanted al-Qaeda, because although it uses terrorism as a tactic, it differs from al-Qaeda in that it has a well-trained army of a very large number of fighters in the tens of thousands, which allows it to engage in sophisticated military operations, it holds huge swathes of land in both Iraq and Syria, it controls very long lines of communication, commands a huge infrastructure, and funds itself. It is in reality a pseudo-state which is led by a conventional army, and that is why the strategies which were so successful and helped diminish the threat from al-Qaeda will not work against this one.
Now in conclusion, I would like to make it very clear that the battle for Tikrit has in fact been the latest episode in the escalating new world war, which is making it even more serious with the active participation of the Iranian regime in it. I would also like to make it equally clear that the whole situation was not much improved by Washington’s inability to adapt its plans and those of her allies to the menace the Islamic state poses to the peace and security of the whole world. What is needed now, and in professor Audrey Cronin’s opinion, the Director of the International Security Program at the George Mason University, is a strategy of offensive containment, which is a combination of limited military strikes and a broad diplomatic strategy to halt the group’s expansion, and undermine its support and its recruiting capabilities, and a serious effort by the United States and its allies to at understand what went wrong from the early days of their involvement in the matters of the Middle East.
Saturday March 21, 2015