Battle for Tikrit: To recapture Sunni city, Iraq sends mostly Shiite force

Iraq is attacking Tikrit from the north and south in its largest counteroffensive yet against the Islamic State. But the use of Shiite militias could prove problematic.

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters gathered north of Baghdad on Sunday. They have been massing in preparation for an attack on Islamic State strongholds along the Tigris River to the north and south of Tikrit, hometown of executed former president Saddam Hussein.

Iraq launched its largest counteroffensive yet against the self-declared Islamic State Monday, the government in Baghdad said, in an effort to retake the city of Tikrit from the group. But while the move is militarily necessary, it implicitly risks further damage to Iraq's sectarian divide, with Shiite militias forming the backbone of the campaign in the mostly Sunni region.

Iraq is sending some 30,000 troops, primarily volunteer Shiite militias backing Iraqi Army forces, against Tikrit, which fell to IS last June. The offensive was officially announced Sunday, during Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's visit to the government-held city of Samarra, about 25 miles south of Tikrit.

France 24 reports that the Iraqi military is attacking Tikrit from both north and south: A government-held base north of Tikrit began bombarding the city Monday, while another force began moving up from Samarra toward the town of al-Dour, an IS stronghold just outside Tikrit. The offensive is backed by Iraqi government air support. The New York Times notes that it is not clear whether the US-backed coalition that has been bombing IS positions since August is also involved.

The Times reports that Tikrit, militarily, is considered a stepping stone toward the key goal: an assault on Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that has become the de facto capital of IS-held territory in Iraq. Mosul is Iraq's second largest city. It fell to IS forces last June. "Success in Tikrit could push up the timetable for a Mosul campaign," the Times writes, "while failure would most likely mean more delays."

The American military, though, appears divided on the question of when the Iraqi military – which collapsed last summer in the face of the Islamic State onslaught – would be ready for a wide-scale offensive in Mosul, or in Anbar Province in the west of the country, which is also in the hands of militants.

In recent weeks, some American military officials have suggested that an offensive in Mosul could begin as early as April. But that angered Iraqi officials, who oppose having Americans dictate a timetable for the Iraqi military and object to publicizing any military plans. More recent news reports suggested that other American officials believe the Iraqi military is unprepared for a Mosul offensive so soon, and that one might not begin until the fall.

Regardless of the implications for a Mosul campaign, the Tikrit operation could have a profound impact on Iraq's sectarian divides. Tikrit, the birthplace of former President Saddam Hussein, is a staunchly Sunni city. When IS captured it last year, the militants drew support from Sunni militias in the city who were frustrated over then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's uncompromising Shiite government. Though Mr. Maliki was ultimately replaced by Mr. Abadi, who publicly accepted US demands for a more inclusive Iraqi leadership, many Sunnis remain suspicious of the still strongly Shiite government.

Abadi, in the run-up to the Tikrit offensive, offered an amnesty to any Sunni group that had supported IS if they abandoned the militants now. “I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” he said Sunday in Samarra, adding that it was the "last chance" for Sunni militias to recant before the city was "return[ed] to its people," the Associated Press reports.

But the government forces attacking Tikrit and its surrounding region of Salahuddin are made primarily of "thousands of Shia fighters, drawn from an array of militias now rebranded the 'Hashid Shaabi', or 'Popular Mobilisation,'" writes David Blair of the Daily Telegraph. This raises the stakes at Tikrit even beyond the military risks, he argues.

First and foremost, the Shia units may struggle to hold any territory they recapture from [IS]. Even if they do retain this ground, their very presence may serve to deepen the alienation of the Sunni inhabitants of Salahuddin.

The fact that some Shia fighters are accused of owing their allegiance to Iran will not help matters, particularly as General Qassem Soleimani, a senior figure in the Revolutionary Guard, is openly helping to plan this campaign.

"Local people may not view the Shia militias as 'liberators', even if they succeed in driving away," he writes.

But Baghdad has few other options if it wants to oust IS before it further digs into Tikrit, as its own forces are unprepared to take the city on their own. "Which is the better choice: to wait until the army is ready – and allow [IS] more time to tighten its grip on northern Iraq? Or strike quickly even if this means relying on Shia militias?" Mr. Blair asks. "The Baghdad government appears to have settled on the latter option. But this course is fraught with risk."

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