Baghdad Strikes Back: Al-Maliki Launches Battle for Tikrit

By Juan Cole

Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki is fighting for his political life as well as for the territorial integrity of Iraq. On Saturday he launched a large military operation in an attempt to take back control of Tikrit (the capital of Salahuddin Province) just to the north of the capital, Baghdad. Al-Maliki has lost control of the areas around Baghdad, even to the south. But his forces kept a position in Samarra, pop. roughly 250,000, a largely Sunni city north of the capital that has a crucial Shiite shrine. The current campaign seems also to involve an army attempt to push ISIS out of the northern suburbs of Samarra.

So why is al-Maliki going north to Tikrit rather than west to Falluja and Ramadi in al-Anbar Province? Or east to Diyala Province? My guess is that the real prize here is Baiji, which has a refinery where much of Iraq’s crude oil is turned into gasoline. Al-Maliki can’t hope to survive if he doesn’t get Baiji back, and Baiji is the next big city north from Tikrit. In other words, it is, as usual, about the oil. (Crude oil is fairly useless and seldom even smuggled because it only gains real value after it is refined into gasoline or kerosene (petrol or paraffin).


Likely, also, the Green Berets sent by Obama to Baghdad have helped the Iraqi army plan out this campaign strategically.

The attacking Iraqi armor (tanks) and thousands of infantry troops are getting good support, according to press reports, by helicopter gunships and fighter jets, the kind of coordination that has been missing as the army was pushed back by during the past two weeks by Sunni forces, many of them organized by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL).

ISIS fighters at first were holed up in the palaces of late dictator Saddam Hussein, who was born in Tikrit. Where they had massed in the city, they were subjected to bombing raids during the day on Saturday. There are conflicting reports about how far the Iraqi military was able to go in taking Tikrit on Saturday. The Iraq army is said to have taken the airport and then the local university. Independent reports seem to confirm that ISIS had been pushed out of the center of the city by Sunday morning.

Even Al-Rafidayn TV, which has a Sunni fundamentalist editorial line, reported that the Iraqi army had expelled ISIS from the governor’s offices and killed some 60 of them, including some ISIS commanders. It quoted Ahmad Abdullah al-Juburi, the governor of Salahuddin Province. It also underlined that the army was supported by “Popular Brigades” of irregulars, presumably Sunni tribesmen who prefer Baghdad to the extremists of ISIS (or who have been paid well to so choose).

Despite Sunni alienation from the al-Maliki government, there is a significant Sunni power elite that had been allied with it and benefited from it. Atheel al-Nujayfi, the governor of Nineva Province, is also seeking to raise a force of Sunni irregulars to expel ISIS from his own city, Mosul.

The Iraqi air force also bombed Mosul on Saturday, targeting ISIS positions, and it received the first shipment of used Russian fighter jets.

The political context for this campaign is that many Iraqi political forces blame al-Maliki for losing a third of the country because he did not reach out to the Sunni Arabs. Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani has hinted broadly that Iraq needs a new government, and is pressuring politicians quickly to settle on who the speaker of parliament, president and prime minister will be before parliament convenes on Tuesday. Sistani is afraid that parliamentary deliberations on filling those key leadership posts will drag on interminably, as they did in 2010, Belgian style. That kind of political paralysis could mean the end of Iraq. Al-Maliki’s people point out that Sistani has not explicitly rejected al-Maliki, which is true. But the hints are pretty broad.

Secretary of State John Kerry, on the other hand, appears to have convinced King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to drop his demand that al-Maliki go as a precondition for the Saudi government to pressure Iraqi Sunnis to turn against ISIS and support the central government in Baghdad. Al-Maliki, a staunch Shiite, has long harbored resentments against Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, the state religion of which takes a hard anti-Shiite line. Kerry is said to have tried to impress on the king that if Iraq breaks up and some fragments bordering on Saudi Arabia are ruled by a wannabe al-Qaeda affiliate, his crown might rest uneasily on his head. Al-Maliki believes that the king was one of the financial backers of ISIS in the first place, and now chickens are coming home to roost. It is more likely that ISIS funding comes from Sunni fundamentalist private businessmen in the Gulf, especially, it is alleged, those in Kuwait.


Related video:

CBS Evening News: “Iraqi troops launch offensive against insurgents in Tikrit”

4 Responses

  1. There should be mention about the situation arising at Jordan’s borders.

    After ISIS took over the Iraq-Jordan towns, it has been gaining strong local support from the residents for their Islamist fight against the Shiites and regimes in the regional conflict, as well as the Jordanian govt and monarchy. Raising greater concern for everyone, including the US and Israel.

    Even though it may seem like they’re spread thin across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, the winning and global and local support keeps them in control of territory and threatening further expansion and invasion. The nightmare from Syria’s Arab Spring continues.

  2. These rag tags will not take on Jordan’s army,these soldiers have a vested interest in the kings survival…and they know Israel’s air power will carry the day ..push comes to push

  3. No matter the vast differences that currently occur between Syria, Israel, Iran, Russia, China, and the US: there is an opportunity now to come to some agreement by all 6 nations and possibly build a new relationship from the toxic spill known as ISIS. I have long believed that the Syrian “revolution” had died, even as far back as 2 years ago. Assad should have long ago been recognized as the legitimate leader of Syria and given aid against ISIS and the Al Nusra front. The FSA has failed and now Syria and Iraq find themselves in an untenable situation. The destruction of these two nations at the expense of a false “caliphate” must not stand. One may speak until dooms day of Assad’s horrific acts (and make no mistake, they were) however, the rebellion has committed equally some horrific acts that were backed up even by the Saudis. The chemical attack in Gouta still has not been cleared up as to who was responsible for all the deaths. Western and US propaganda has only assured us to believe it was Assad only because they kept on saying so long enough. You repeat it enough and people eventually believe what they hear.
    A rebirth of new ideas and understanding is the opportunity we now have. We should seize the moment in understanding that there is an even greater enemy to civilization that has sprung directly from our own ignorance.

  4. I assume that ISIS is over extended and their lines of communication must be very fragile. In other words they should be open to assault.

    I would also think that air power in the desert could be an overwhelming advantage if the Iraqi government can get its act together.

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