The much ballyhooed Iraqi government operation to capture the central city of Tikrit from the Islamic State has stalled three weeks after it began, amid widespread reports that Shiite Muslim militias and the government are badly divided over tactics and roiled by claims that the militias have engaged in war crimes against the local Sunni Muslim population.
A two-day pause supposedly intended to give the Iraqi government time to bring up reinforcements has stretched into a week, as reports circulate that Iraqi government troops and the militias took heavier than anticipated casualties in their first efforts to dislodge Islamic State fighters. At least 1,000 militiamen died in the early days of fighting, according to some reports, roughly 5 percent of the 20,000 men the militias have committed to the operation.
Even during the pause, pro-government casualties remain high. A witness in the main government hospital at the nearby city of Samarra said that at least 100 dead or wounded fighters had been brought in over the last four days and that “bodies are everywhere” at the facility. The witness asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Difficulties with the Tikrit operation underscore how unlikely it is that the Iraqi military will be in any position soon to launch an assault to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which fell to the Islamic State last June. A U.S. military officer in February created a stir when he told reporters at the Pentagon that such an assault might come as soon as April. Pentagon officials later acknowledged that Iraqi troops might not be in such a position before the fall.
How to proceed in Tikrit has left the government and the militias split. Iraqi officials say a full frontal assault against the Islamic State forces might succeed but would come at a heavy cost. Commanders of Iraq’s special operation forces, which would lead such a charge, are opposed to it.
The Shiite militias come to the battle with a sectarian zeal and are said to be untroubled by the prospect of casualties. Tikrit is the hometown of the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whom most Shiites detest for his repression of their sect. It is also the scene last summer of a notorious massacre of 1,000 Shiite air force recruits, whose video-recorded deaths at the hands of the Islamic State were widely distributed on the Internet. Hadi al Ameri, the leader of one of the militias, the Badr Organization, openly referred to the retaking of Tikrit as “revenge for Speicher,” the military camp where the recruits were murdered.
The militias’ Iranian advisers, against whom Saddam fought an eight-year war and who have also battled the Islamic State in Syria, also are said to favor an advance, whatever the cost.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, however, has asked for a better plan, apparently hesitant to unleash the militias for fear of an American backlash after reports that Shiite militias have terrorized the local Sunni population, pillaging houses and raping women. The United States, whose commanders apparently opposed the Tikrit operation, so far has declined to commit American air power to it.
An Iraqi military commander on the scene who asked not be identified discussing sensitive national security matters described a difficult task ahead for any troops sent in to dislodge the Islamic State forces, whose numbers have been described as a few hundred. The Islamic State portions of the town are heavily fortified with booby-traps and defended by snipers and suicide bombers scattered among civilians unable to leave, he said.
The presence of massive fortifications, hundreds of roadside bombs and the effective use of suicide bombers, a tactic the Islamic State – also known as ISIL or ISIS – has employed in both Iraq and Syria, would lead to enormous destruction and the likely loss of hundreds of civilian lives, the officer said.
That has led the military command of Salahuddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital, the Iraqi army’s so-called Golden Brigade of special operators, and the Iraqi Interior Ministry to clash with the militias, the officer said.
“The militia leadership insists on completing the attack with massive air cover, artillery and the heavy bombing on Daash elements,” the officer said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The officer’s comments were later endorsed by an Iraqi political leader, who also asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Such seemingly indiscriminate bombardment of a populated area would kill many civilians and likely would inflame both the international community and U.S. officials, who’ve openly warned that they are watching the operation for such problems.
The American sensitivity is heightened by videos posted on social media that purport to document a wide range of abuses, from executions to kidnappings, some involving troops U.S. advisers had trained. One shows two men being interrogated by Iraqi special forces before being machine-gunned to death.
ABC News compiled a string of such videos earlier this month and presented them to U.S. and Iraqi authorities. In a statement, the United States expressed anger. “As the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) and militias reclaim territory, their behavior must be above reproach or they risk being painted with the same brush as ISIL fighters,” the statement said, according to the network.
A statement from Human Rights Watch earlier this month said it had documented atrocities by government forces and militias in areas of Diyala province north of Baghdad, where they had recaptured territory from the Islamic State.
The military and the militias also are reportedly split over whether to ask the United States to provide air cover to the effort to retake Tikrit. The military has said precision airstrikes are needed to root out the Islamic State forces. But the militias and their Iranian advisers reportedly have rejected such a request, saying that want to prove that the militias can conquer Islamic State forces without Western help.
For now, the officer and the political official both said, the Iraqi military has decided to push up heavy earth-moving equipment to clear booby-traps while tightening the cordon on the city center to deny the militants resupply. The plan will be to wait them out, the officer and official said.
A spokesman for the largest of the Shiite militias, The League of Righteousness, disagreed, however, that that is the plan. Speaking to McClatchy by phone from Tikrit, Abu Zahra Zergawi said the popular movement, a common euphemism for the militias, would resume operations “in one or two days as more men and equipment are brought to the area.”
The trajectory of the Tirkit operation also might easily have been foreseen, given the difficulties Iraqi government forces have had retaking the central Iraqi town of Baiji, another Sunni stronghold that, like Tikrit, was captured last summer in the Islamic State’s initial push across the country.
The Iraqi government announced an offensive to retake Baiji with great fanfare in early November, but in the ensuing days it was forced to break off the attack after encountering roadside bombs, suicide bombers and snipers that prevented army troops and militias from getting closer than six miles from the city.
Finally in December, the government announced that it had reached Baiji and had broken an Islamic State siege on the town’s oil refinery, Iraq’s largest. But a fierce Islamic State counterattack a few days later recaptured most of the town and surrounding areas.
The oil refinery remained in government hands, as it had since the Islamic State onslaught last summer, but to date the Iraqi government has been unable to restart its operations, and the troops occupying it have only a precarious resupply line, residents report.
The course of such operations augur poorly for government operations of a more ambitious nature such as the recapture of Mosul, said a former U.S. military non-commissioned officer who served in Iraq and now trains foreign militaries in the region. He suggested it meant the operation to retake Mosul might need to be shelved indefinitely.
“If the Iraqis can’t retake two square miles of a town they’ve had surrounded for weeks, how can anyone expect they’ll be better off fighting house to house in a place the size of Mosul, with almost 2 million residents?” he said, asking that he not be identified because he hoped still to win a contract to help train Iraqis. “I’m not sure they will ever be capable of doing it without a bloodbath. It would be an enormously complex operation for the American military, and these guys aren’t even close to ready.”
McClatchy special correspondents in Salahuddin province and Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report. They are not being named for security reasons.