Iraqi military forces recently entered into a battle with ISIL on its own turf this past Tuesday. ISIL is currently in control of the city of Tikrit as well as the surrounding villages. This Iraqi offensive is the first of many to fight ISIL and to ultimately regain control of Mosul, which is Iraq’s second largest city and is currently controlled by ISIL forces. Control of Tikrit is crucial for the Iraqi military to advance to Mosul because Tikrit lies on a major highway that leads from Baghdad to Mosul, thus, control of Tikrit is the first step to gaining access to Mosul and taking away an ISIL stronghold.
According to Iraq’s defense ministry, Iraqi forces have already gained control of areas surrounding the city of Tikrit that are along the Tigris River. Some Iraqi government troops are already stationed in some of the main streets of Tikrit along with some Shia volunteers from Popular Mobilisation Forces. These Shia volunteers are helping with the Iraqi government’s push to rid ISIL from Iraq.
ISIL Fighters are putting up a stiff fight. ISIL has reportedly blown up a bridge that leads to Tikrit making the Iraqi military’s advance a little more difficult. Several roads going into the city are also believed to be rigged with explosives, which further slows down the Iraqi advance. The Iraqi military, however, is slowly progressing towards the center of the city. According to the Iraqi defense ministry, Iraqi forces have destroyed 20 heavy machine guns and 20 vehicles during its advance towards Tikrit. The Iraqis have also dismantled approximately 382 improvised explosive devices along its way into the city. As of now, the Iraqi government claims to have killed 350 suspected ISIL fighters within a four day period.
In the last couple of days, the Iraqi military along with the Shia militia have captured a few towns surrounding Tikrit including al-Alam and al-Dour. The military has also gained control over the oil fields in al-Ojail. The Iraqi military is set up to capture a few more small villages surrounding Tikrit within the next few days. The Iraqi government is looking at the battle for Tikrit to gauge how bad future conflicts between the Iraqi military and ISIL could end up. If ISIL puts up a huge fight at Tikrit, the Iraqi government can expect a very bloody fight all the way up to Mosul. The hope of the Iraqi government is that the capture of Tikrit will encourage Sunni’s across the country to rise up against ISIL and take back their villages.
There are some inherent sectarian issues that arise with this Iraqi military offensive towards Tikrit. Tikrit is a Sunni stronghold, and the Iraqi government is working with Shia militias to try and fight ISIL. Therefore there is Shia militia that are killing Sunni’s in Tikrit. Shia militia groups, including the League of the Righteous (a Shia group), have reportedly ransacked and burned the houses of Sunni residents in the city of Tikrit. This is causing great tension between the Sunni’s and the Shia’s. The Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has issued a statement regarding these recent attacks by the Shia groups. His statement encourages the Iraqi government to investigate and punish any Shia group that is using excessive violence against any Sunni resident of Tikrit. There is some confusion as to who to blame for the Shia militia attacks on the Sunni’s. The Leader of the League of the Righteous claims that he was operating under orders given by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who is the commander of the elite Quds Brigade. General Soleimani has been seen directing operations on the eastern flank of Tikrit.
I think this offensive displayed by the Iraqi government is a huge step in the right direction. It shows that the government recognizes the problem and is willing to do what it takes to gain control of its cities again. The Iraqi government is surely expecting a bloody war with ISIL, but it is a risk they are willing to take to win back their homeland. The biggest issue I see is the sectarian conflicts that may arise from this fight against ISIL. With Shia militia fighting in Sunni cities, it could cause for more incidents like what was seen with the League of the Righteous. This could provoke a civil war type of conflict in Iraq. The last thing Iraq needs is a Sunni population fighting a Shia population while both sides fight with ISIL.