28 May 2015

Why the fall of Tikrit is so significant

R Dayakar
May 28 2015

For Iraqi Shias and Iran, taking control of Tikrit has a special meaning. Tikrit was closely identified with Saddam Hussein.

Shi'ite fighters or Hashd-al Shabi look at smoke from an explosives-laden vehicle driven by an IS suicide bomber that exploded during an attack on Tikrit.

TIKRIT, the birthplace and the burial site of Saddam Hussain, has been a fulcrum in the Sunni heartland of Iraq that had fought the US forces from 2003 until their withdrawal in 2011 and since maintained a continuous challenge to the predominantly Shia regime in Baghdad, accusing it of sectarian bias, ill-treatment and vindictiveness. Tikrit also contributed some other top leaders of Iraq in the past. Colonel Ahmed Hasan Al-Bakr, the first President of Baathist Iraq hailed from Tikrit. Izzat brahim Al-Douri, (the sole surviving member of Saddam Husain's inner circle until his reported death last month in Tikrit), who carried on the Baathist legacy under the appellation of Nakshabandi Order that played a role in Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL)'s takeover of Mosul and Tikrit last June, hailed from Al Dour, an outlying town of Tikrit. Saddam Hussain's own brother-in-law Adnan Khairallah who belonged to Tikrit was Defence Minister until his death in a helicopter crash in the late 1980s. Until 2003, Iraq's intelligence chiefs were mostly from Tikrit. Tikrit also happens to be the birthplace of Salahuddin al-Ayoubi, ethnically a Kurd and known to the world as Saladdin, who led the Muslim armies in the 12th century crusades and retook Jerusalem from Christian control. Tikrit was renamed Salahuddin, symbolising the connection with Jerusalem’s conqueror.

The initiation, conduct and denouement of the month-long battle that ended in wresting the control of Tikrit from the grip of Islamic State by the Iraqi government recently, mirrors a complex web of conflicting interests among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, the Iraqi government Iran and US. It is anchored in differing sectarian,ethnic, geopolitical and security considerations that have, however, made a common cause in fighting IS. The battle line-up for Tikrit consisted of an estimated 30,000-strong Iraqi force composed of 10,000 from the army, 20,000 from an alliance of Shia militias called Hashd al-Shabi and a small Sunni tribal contingent, with Iranian military advisers in charge of the overall strategy. The Iraqi air force played a role initially until supportive US air strikes became inescapable for an early end to the fighting and had to be called in willy-nilly. As for IS, its strength was variously put, at different times of the battle, between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters that included Sunni jihadists drawn from different countries and ex-Baathists. IS was on the defensive, completely isolated by its savage acts and with its fighting abilities dented by the crippling US and allied airstrikes on its positions elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. Also the UN sanctions, global watch against its sale of stolen oil and antiques and a fall in inflow of new recruits into its ranks, thanks to the guard against travel of misguided youth to its hideouts, too contributed.

US role

The Iraqi offensive that started in the beginning of March achieved initial successes without US air support in occupying most of the outer areas and in encircling Tikrit city, depriving the IS fighters of fresh supplies and reinforcements. However, by March 25, the final thrust to enter Tikrit city was halted to minimise casualties from booby traps and snipers and to work out a new battle strategy. Before long, it dawned on Iraqi planners that any delay in finishing the campaign for Tikrit would be to the advantage of IS and that direct air support from US was indispensable for an early, successful conclusion and to reduce the losses. Within days of US air strikes, Iraqi forces took control of the entire Tikrit. There is no information on the casualties suffered by each side. Going by conventional wisdom, the attacking force would have taken more casualties. The unilateral pause by the government forces after three weeks of advance, followed by the US involvement on an appeal, is a pointer towards this. 

Significance of the campaign

The Iraqi offensive in Tikrit is noteworthy on several counts. Firstly, this was the third attempt to evict IS from Tikrit. The earlier two attempts by the Iraqi army, without Iranian advisers or a direct US role had ended in failure. Viewed in the light of the western assessment of a year or so as the time required to restore the Iraqi army battered by the IS in Mosul last June into a fighting force, its performance in retaking Tikrit in March seems a remarkable turnaround, apparently under Iranian direction. Secondly, until the Tikrit offensive,Tehran's long-suspected military presence in Iraq was kept under wraps and denied by Iran and Iraq, though news of the killing of its officers earlier by the IS near Baghdad could not be suppressed. With the Tikrit campaign, Iran's close involvement in Iraq was no longer a covert affair with the media in both the countries reporting from the very beginning the presence in the battle zone of redoubtable General Qassem Soleimani the commander of the Al Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 

Thirdly, the Tikrit campaign offers a glimpse of the converging stakes and early signs of an evolving modus vivendi between the US and Iran in fighting the IS in Iraq, while opposed to each other everywhere else. Despite existential threats from the IS, Iran showed extreme reluctance to fight the IS together with US because of a deep distrust of American intentions in the region, the economic sanctions imposed to roll back its alleged nuclear weapon programme, branding its Al-Quds Force a terrorist organisation, and support to overthrow the pro-Iranian Bashar Assad regime in Syria. In fact, in the popular narrative purveyed by the Iranian and pro-Shiite media of Iraq, the IS is nothing but a covert creation of the US to fight Shias and to topple Bashar Assad govt in Damascus. Given the history of the US-Iran friction, a joint fight against the IS is not a political option for Iran. As a corollary, the Shiite regime in Iraq with close links to Tehran has ruled out US troops on ground in the fight against the IS and merely pressed for speedy delivery of US weapons and aircraft. US had no direct role initially in the Tikrit battle, being kept away from the Iran-directed offensive until its air support became indispensable. The US Secretary of Defence was quoted in early March as saying that Iraq did not ask for air support in Tikrit. 

In fact, Iraq did not even consult US over the timing or the course of operations of the Tikrit campaign, though the US claimed to have had advance knowledge. Formidable resistance from the IS and the ensuing stalemate eventually led to Iraq accepting the US air cover, complying with the US condition to keep Shia militias and Iranians away from the battle zone, though the latter two claimed that they withdrew on their own in protest against US involvement. (Curiously, the US' direct involvement in the Tikrit battle in response to an Iraqi request coincided with the breakthrough in Geneva in the US-led six-power talks with Iran over the latter's nuclear programme in end March). By excluding Iranians and Shiite militia from the battle zone, US has signalled to Sunnis, within and outside Iraq, its neutrality in the sectarian polarisation and distanced itself from a potential retributive brutality of Shia militias against Tikrit residents. Fourthly, It would be interesting to compare the US air strikes against the IS in the obscure Syria-Turkey border town of Kobane in aid of Kurdish militia in Jan-Feb with that in Tikrit in March in support of the Iraqi army. It took weeks for the US air force to bring the IS to its knees in Kobane, while in Tikrit it took the US only a few days to subdue IS. This lends support to the view that in fighting the IS, the US is more focused on Iraq than in Syria where both US and IS aim at ousting Bashar Assad. 

Fifthly, Iraq allowed the experienced Kurdish militia Peshmarga only a marginal role in Tikrit. The autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan has an IOU to Iran for the latter's timely supplies of arms and ammunition last June that helped its militia in fending off the advance of the IS on the Kurdish capital Erbil. Further, Kurdistan is on the northern edge of Tikrit area. The Kurdish militia thus could have been involved operationally in the Iranian directed offensive to put pressure on IS from the north of Tikrit, somewhat easing the situation for Iraqi forces moving in from the other directions. The virtual exclusion of Kurds therefore seems to be a political fallout of Baghdad-Erbil friction. 

Deep distrust and on-and-off tiffs between Kurds and the Iraqi government over a host of issues, notably the contested oil rich Kirkuk and nearby mixed Arab-Kurdish areas, sharing of oil revenues and open display of secessionist aspirations by some Kurds apparently have led to the restricted role for the Kurdish militia in the Tikrit offensive. Baghdad sees in militarily empowered Kurds an existential threat to the country's territorial integrity and fears that a Kurdish role in evicting the IS would buttress its territorial claims, albeit within the sovereignty of Iraq. 

Lastly, the Sunni contingent in the battle is little more than tokenism, to place a non-sectarian façade. Sunni tribal leaders generally had expressed a preference to fight the IS under US command rather than the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. Sunnis' contribution in Tikrit liberation is far below its weight and indicates the extent of the trust deficit between the two sects and underscores the efforts needed to draw Sunnis into the mainstream anti-IS campaign. 

The control of Tikrit paved the way for the eventual onward Iraqi campaign northward and westward to liberate Mosul and Anbar respectively from the IS. The defeat of the IS and ex-Baathists in Tikrit by the Iraqi troops, helped initially by Iran and later by US albeit in a mutually excluding arrangement, signifies a modus vivendi of some sort between the two in Iraq. This further seals the geopolitical, strategic, political and sectarian changes wrought by the 2003 Iraq war, as an increasingly irreversible landmark event, though the Shia-majority and Iran- supported regime in Baghdad may not be free from recurrent challenges.

The role of Iran

The open role of Iran in Tikrit fighting can be seen in this light. The defeat of the IS in Tikrit in an Iran- directed offensive would have projected Tehran as the saviour of Iraq, particularly its majority Shias as also the region from the monstrous IS. This would have led to consolidation of its strategic influence in Iraq and directing further onward campaign in Anbar and Mosul. However, the IS' stubborn resistance, forcing the Iraqi govt to seek US air support, which proved decisive in ending the battle, deprived Iran of such an aura. 

The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq

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