As a small force of Islamic State militants holds out in parts of Tikrit for a fourth week, Iraqi forces have been forced to shift tactics, officials say: Rather than storming in to clear the city at any cost, the security forces are trying to seal off the area and begin preparing for even more challenging battles to the west and north.
The Iraqi forces’ progress has put them closer to the doorstep of Nineveh Province, where the city of Mosul looms as the most important battle against the Islamic State. But the hard lessons of the Tikrit offensive, with a heavy cost in casualties for the Shiite militiamen and soldiers involved, have Iraqi officials thinking more cautiously about their next steps.
To that end, officials say, their next goal will be securing the western province of Anbar, in part to keep Islamic State fighters there from ambushing and harassing the main Iraqi force to the east.
“We will secure Anbar first, and then move on to Nineveh,” Iraq’s defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, told reporters recently. He added that new army troops were still training for Mosul, where Islamic State militants were constructing berms and trenches, preparing to “destroy the city to defend it.”
Even just reaching this point has been a much-needed success for the Iraqi forces, which were badly routed by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) last June.
Now, the main offensive’s progress puts it astride a vital cluster of road networks, potentially linking scattershot battles across the northeast, mostly fought by Kurdish forces, and in the west, where Iraqi troops and a small local Sunni force are surrounded by militants in some places.
But the government’s effort faces many challenges — not least that the battle for Tikrit itself is far from over. The pro-government force of more than 30,000 is struggling to clear a midsize city in a province never believed to have had more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters. And holding the area could be even harder, given the Islamic State’s grip on nearby areas.
On March 13, for example, ISIS fighters crossed the plains from Anbar and attacked pro-government forces behind their front line, inflicting casualties.
And on March 11, officials said, ISIS fighters tunneled under a house used as an army post in Anbar and blew it up, killing at least 13 soldiers in an explosion so large that Iraqi officials initially accused American warplanes of bombing it by mistake.
Officials and military analysts agree that a sprawling battle to drive the Islamic State out of Anbar and its stronghold in Mosul will take a much bigger force than is gathered around Tikrit.
The progress in Tikrit raises the possibility of increased cooperation among the militias, the army and Kurdish pesh merga forces, including those battling ISIS nearby around the northeastern oil hub of Kirkuk. But it will not be as simple as just having those two sets of forces link up and march onward.
In particular, there are mounting concerns about sectarian tension. Most of the forces around Tikrit are Shiite militiamen, who are being guided by Iranian military advisers. Their advance into heavily Sunni areas has worried some American officials, and the United States-led coalition has not yet conducted airstrikes centered directly on the Tikrit mission.
Given those concerns, as well as political and ethnic tensions and differing terrain and battle dynamics, a lineup of forces that works on one front may not work on another, analysts and officials say.
Yet it is hard to see how a large enough force to take Mosul — with hundreds of thousands of residents and thousands of ISIS fighters — could be built without drawing on all the available forces, regardless of the difficulties.
Iraqi officials insist that their urgent efforts to build up the regular army, with the help of American trainers, will deliver at least two or three more divisions — thousands of troops, theoretically — to help with the Mosul offensive. But recruiting and retraining efforts for the Iraqi Army have not produced as many fighters as the parallel efforts by Shiite militias.
At times, Shiite forces and pesh merga have cooperated against the Islamic State, and Iraqi officials say both groups operate under the central military chain of command. But they have been at best only loosely subsumed. And neither is well suited to Anbar, a province dominated by Sunni Arab tribes and a longtime cradle of Iraqi insurgencies. ISIS leaders first came together battling the United States occupation there.
Iraqi officials say more local Sunni fighters are needed in Anbar, along with regular forces. But the leaders of the so-called Sunni Awakening militias, which turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq with American backing starting in 2007, have been discredited or displaced, and new allies must be found, cajoled or bought.
At the same time, the Islamic State is believed by Iraqi and American officials to be pulling back fighters from other fronts to defend Mosul. The group continues to draw new recruits and move freely across the uncontrolled border with Syria. ISIS recently released a new video of fighters training, purportedly part of a new force formed to defend the city.
Rafid Jaboori, the spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said recently that the government envisions the battle for Mosul being led by new army forces, Sunni residents in and around Mosul, and Kurdish pesh merga, all supported by airstrikes from the United States-led military coalition.
Yet some of the Shiite militiamen fighting to take Tikrit have vowed to participate in an advance on Mosul as well, saying they had earned the honor.
“We haven’t fought anywhere and lost,” said Sayed Qasemi, a leader in Kirkuk of the popular mobilization units, the umbrella name for the many Shiite militias.
At the same time, Kurdish political and military leaders downplayed any talk of spearheading a Mosul offensive, wary of being seen as occupiers in the Sunni Arab-majority city. They are focused on securing what they consider Kurdish territory.
Still, the militias and Kurds have cooperated at times. As the battle raged for Tikrit, pesh merga cleared more than 40 square miles of territory south and west of Kirkuk, the oil hub city that is central to Kurdish independence aspirations. That progress, which included help from Shiite militiamen, has effectively sandwiched some ISISunits between the main Kurdish and Shiite forces.
The Islamic State fighters around Kirkuk were demoralized, according to General Rasoul Omar, a Kurdish commander. He said the militants lacked “spirit in their attack and even defense” and withdrew “wildly,” failing to leave behind their trademark lethal booby-traps.
That is a distinct turnaround from January, when hundreds of ISISfighters briefly pushed into the city of Kirkuk itself, killing two seasoned pesh merga commanders in the process.
Kurds and Shiites worked together to repel the attack, but afterward, arguments broke out over the presence of hundreds of Shiite militia fighters. The Kurds saw them as a threat to their dominance of the ethnically mixed city.
Kirkuk’s governor, Najmiddin Karim, who proudly displays photo albums of dead ISIS fighters, warned that without visionary leadership, Iraq risked falling apart under the strains of a prolonged war.
“If it’s amicable and everyone agrees, that’s fine,” he said. “But I think it’s going to be very dirty.”