Monday, April 6, 2015

Divisions Over Iraq War Exposed In Victory In Tikrit

After a month’s worth of fighting Tikrit was finally taken by pro-government forces. The victory revealed internal and external disputes over the war in Iraq, as well as the weakness of the Islamic State (IS). On the one hand, Tikrit revealed that a small force of IS fighters and a huge amount of improvised explosive devices can hold up an overwhelming force for a short period, but it does not have the manpower to win. On the other hand, there are deep political divisions between Iran, its allies within the Hashd, Baghdad, and Washington. Iran and its friends wanted to take Tikrit by themselves, but mounting casualties led Baghdad to ask for America’s aid. There were also constant worries in the western press that there would be sectarian cleansing in central Salahaddin. While there were some abuses and a short period of chaos after Tikrit was taken that showed some elements of the Hashd were outside of official control, but it was not as bad as some expected. The taking of Tikrit was a big victory for the Iraqi government, but it also highlighted some of the problems that will arise in future battles.

At the beginning of March 2015 the Tikrit operation was launched. Iran and its allies within the Hashd al-Shaabi originally planned the campaign on their own, presenting it as a fait accompli to Baghdad. Tehran reportedly committed 1,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and 150 Lebanese Hezbollah advisers along with artillery and planes to ensure success. Badr Organization head Hadi Ameri praised this assistance from Tehran, while criticizing politicians who were asking for U.S. help. Up to two-thirds of the attacking force of 30,000 was made up of Hashd fighters. Some Sunni forces such as the Jabouri tribe were included, but they were given a minor role. The rest were made up of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). It was initially hoped that Iran could consolidate its role as the dominant force in Iraq if the pro-Tehran Hashd forces could retake Tikrit without the aid of the Americans. Iran was the first country to come to Baghdad’s side after Mosul fell in June 2014. It also launched a propaganda campaign on social media portraying itself as the protector of the Shiites. Pictures of IRGC-QF commander General Qasim Suleimani thus became ubiquitous on Iraqi social media. At first, it looked like its plans were going accordingly until central Tikrit was reached.

The operation started off quickly with the surrounding villages freed and the urban center of Tikrit surrounded. Towns like Dour, Alam, and Albu Ajeel fell in quick succession during the first week, but the campaign then stalled. An Iraqi army captain told Niqash that the ISF and Hashd were not trained in urban warfare, which was necessary to take Tikrit. There were huge IED fields, snipers and counter attacks in the surrounding area slowing down the advance. U.S. Central Command head General Lloyd Austin also believed that a lack of coordination between the attacking forces and poor planning was also responsible for the halt. The result was mounting casualties with McClatchy Newspapers reporting that up to 1,000 Hashd died alone in the first two weeks of fighting. That caused differences between Iran and its allies in the Hashd with the army over strategy. The former wanted to continue with a frontal assault, while the Iraq Special Operations Command was opposed to that due to the losses. A Hashd spokesman claimed that it was only a matter of days before Tikrit fell, while the ISF said it could take up to two weeks. The head of the Samarra Operations Command General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi asked the Defense Ministry to request Coalition air strikes. Meanwhile, Badr head Ameri began attacking any Iraqi official who supported that move. He claimed the U.S. was threatening Iraqi sovereignty with its demand, and called the army “weaklings” if it went with the Americans. Ameri insisted that Iranian help was all that was needed for victory. Prime Minister Haider Abadi ended up siding with the security forces and called in Washington. That was a major setback for Iran. Its whole strategy was for it to be the sole external power in the fight, and it explicitly told Baghdad it did not want the Americans involved. If the 1,000 casualties amongst the Hashd alone figure was correct, that would mean that there were two to four times as many casualties meaning up to 5,000 out of 20,000 were lost during the start of the operation. Those staggering figures could not be sustained, and cooler minds amongst the army and Special Operations command successfully argued that with Coalition air strikes Tikrit could be taken much quicker and with fewer losses.

U.S. air support proved crucial for the final push on Tikrit. The Americans began with surveillance flights, followed by bombing missions starting on March 25. Premier Abadi gave a televised speech saying that this was the beginning of the liberation of the country. He got support from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani whose representative said that the Hashd should consult with the ISF and prime minister during a Friday sermon. Some U.S. officials gloated over this turn of events telling the Wall Street Journal that the Iranian’s plans had been defeated, and hoped that this would mean Baghdad would cooperate more closely with Washington. The U.S. wanted its support to empower the prime minister and place the government rather than Iran at the head of the fight not only in Tikrit, but for the rest of the war as well.

To push this point the U.S. requested that Baghdad pull back the Hashd forces and have the ISF take the lead on the final assault on Tikrit. Some Hashd needed no prodding as they were already anti-American and did not want to be seen cooperating with it. Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, the Imam Ali Brigade, the Peace Brigades, and Badr all said they were suspending operations. Spokesmen for Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and the Sadrists said that the Coalition hit the ISF and were aiding the Islamic State, a Badr member said that Tikrit could be taken without the U.S., while Hezbollah Nujaba threatened to target Coalition aircraft. This proved largely for show as the Hashd did take part in taking the city. They thus got to flaunt their anti-western credentials and claim their share of the spoils when Tikrit fell. 

The center of Tikrit was taken on March 31, although some sporadic fighting continued, especially in the northern Qadisiyah district. Prime Minister Abadi gave a national address proclaiming victory, and then went to the city itself to take part in the celebrations. Using satellite imagery the United Nations reported that 137 buildings had been completely destroyed and 241 damaged in the fighting. It didn’t say what percentage of the city that was however. Tikrit was the second major city to fall to the insurgents after Mosul during the summer. The Islamic State rounded up 1,200 members of the ISF and cadets at Camp Speicher outside the city and executed them. Most of the population fled as well to escape being under IS control. Retaking the city therefore was a huge step for Baghdad to regain control of the country. It also highlighted the fact that the IS tactics of IEDs, snipers, and fortified urban zones, while elaborate, could not stop a determined enemy, especially with the assistance of Coalition air power. For a short period it looked that like that might be undermined by the actions of the some of the Hashd.

At the start of the operation there were sporadic reports about abuses going on. March 10 a video was posted showing Asaib Ahl Al-Haq men burning homes in Albu Ajeel. The town was where some of the Camp Speicher victims were taken, and a mass grave was discovered there with 300-400 bodies in it. The tribe of the same name was accused of taking part in the massacre as well, which was likely the motivation for the destruction meted out there. The Salahaddin council confirmed that some houses had been destroyed there, and that they disapproved of the acts. At the same time it claimed they belonged to IS members. March 21 a councilman, a parliamentarian and a policeman accused Kataib Hezbollah of looting and destroying homes in Dour. Many in the western press constantly talked about the threat of sectarian cleansing that might accompany the Tikrit offensive. The two cases reported however did not appear systematic, but it did show the bad tendencies of some of the Hashd forces to act as vigilantes and take their revenge on anyone they considered IS members or their supporters. What they would do after Tikrit was taken however, was an even bigger concern.

The fall of Tikrit gave way to 2-3 days of looting and destruction. April 2, Moqtada al-Sadr said that “brazen militias” should be removed from the city and the ISF put in control. He said any Hashd that committed crimes had to be held accountable. The next day the Salahaddin governor and head of council protested against violations going on in the city, while the provincial council called on Ayatollah Sistani to intervene and demand the end of abuses by the Hashd. Vice President Osama Nujafi commented on the looting and burning of homes as well, and met with the Iraqi President Fuad Masum and Defense Minister Khalid Obeidi to express his concerns, and Speaker of Parliament Salim Jabouri called on the central government to impose order upon the city. Finally, Ayatollah Sistani’s representative called for an end to the chaos in the city during a Friday sermon. Prime Minister responded by ordering the ISF to arrest anyone breaking the law in Tikrit. The Hashd denied any responsibility claiming that it was criminal gangs, or local clans, but they could not ignore all the pressure and agreed to leave the city on April 4. The ISF also set up checkpoints around the city, and the disorder appeared to end. A U.S. official said that the abuses did not appear widespread, but that it could have undone all that had just been achieved. The chaos showed that some of the Hashd were not under Baghdad’s control, and turned into an unruly mob. The government was able to stop them. If not, future offensives could have been seen as giving the green light to Shiite gunmen to take revenge and steal at will like a conquering army rather than as a liberating force restoring law and order from the insurgents.

The Tikrit operation had all the elements of a possible defeat for the government even if the city was taken. Iran could have sidelined the United States and made Baghdad largely dependent upon it if Tehran’s original plan for the Hashd to take the city had been successful. Instead the United States became involved after staying out of the campaign for the first two weeks to maintain the rough balance between the two foreign powers. The ISF also took the lead in the final stage of the battle to take the city. The Hashd could have also turned into a mob and destroyed Tikrit and the surrounding villages. The Camp Speicher massacre was a traumatic event, and Shiites especially continue to bring it up as a defining moment in the war. Blood lust could have taken over, but cooler heads prevailed and the government and the Najaf religious authority all called for and demanded calm. That led the Hashd to withdraw, and the police were given command of Tikrit. These issues have not been completely resolved, and they are likely to come up again and again as the fight against the insurgency continues.


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