By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)
The Iraqi military and allied Shiite militias are mounting a campaign to take the largely Sunni town of Tikrit (original pop. 300,000), which is alleged to have been planned and is being directed by the Jerusalem (Quds) Brigade, the foreign special ops arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Quds Brigade commander Qasim Solaimani has been photographed on site.
Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi appears to have ordered this campaign despite the fears of the US that the Iraqi army was not ready for it and that insufficient effort had been expended to raise Sunni tribal levies. As it is, perhaps two thirds of the attacking forces are Shiite militiamen trained and equipped by Iran. The US is not giving it close air support, allegedly as part of a deal Washington made with PM al-Abadi that Iran could take part in the Tikrit campaign but the US as a result would not. The US does not want Iran involved in the coming Mosul campaign because the largely Sunni city of some one million would not accept Iranian special forces.
Tikrit is from all accounts a ghost town. Much of its population fled last summer when Daesh took it over. In the past week, another 30,000— ten percent of its prewar population— has fled. Sunni townspeople hitting the road have torn up sheets to wave as white flags of surrender if they encounter Shiite militiamen, of whom they are terrified, saying that the militiamen are often seeking revenge. Iraqi government sources say that this fear is overblown, and that 4000 Sunni fighters have joined in against Daesh.
The Iranian press in Arabic, al-`Alam, reports that the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias had surrounded Tikrit and cut off resupply routes for Daesh. [The Iraqi press contradicts this allegation, saying that the Daesh position in Tikrit is receiving reinforcements from the north.] They also chased Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) from villages southeast of Tikrit and were now at the threshold of al-Dur district. It claimed that the Baghdad forces had inflicted a terrible toll on the Daesh fighters, and had managed to defuse two truck bombs in the district. The Iraqi army has, it says, liberated a housing complex in al-Dur, killing dozens of Daesh fighters. There were 33 casualties among the Shiite militias and the Iraqi army.
Daesh sources deny that the army and the Shiite militias have in fact made much progress toward the city.