Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Tikrit fell without a fight on 11 June last year when Iraqi soldiers and their commanders fled and some 800 Shia cadets taken prisoner by Isis were killed in the Camp Speicher massacre

It is important for the Iraqi army to win the struggle for the city of Tikrit because this would be its first successful counteroffensive since the beginning of last year. It has hitherto failed to recapture any city or town taken by Isis since the fall of Fallujah in January 2014.

Tikrit, on the Tigris River 80 miles north of Baghdad, has a symbolic value for all sides as the home town of Saddam Hussein and a wholly Sunni Arab city. It fell without a fight on 11 June last year when Iraqi soldiers and their commanders fled and some 800 Shia cadets taken prisoner by Isis were killed in the Camp Speicher massacre. 

The Iraqi army claims to have massed 30,000 soldiers for the assault on Tikrit which, if correct, would mean that much of its army is now deployed in the front line. The US has estimated that only a dozen Iraqi army brigades –about 48,000 men – are capable of fighting. They will be backed up by Shia militia and Sunni tribal levies.

The last time the Iraqi army entered Tikrit last year it was ambushed in the middle of the city and forced to withdraw. The population, once 260,000, has largely fled because of the fighting and lack of electricity and water. Those remaining may be caught up in a long, drawn-out battle if Isis militants fight it out street-to-street. They are already reported to have planted numerous bombs and booby traps.

 

The Iraqi army is unlikely to walk into a trap as it did last time. It will at least partly be directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander, General Ghassem Soleimani, who has been at the front for two days. An important factor is the degree to which the US will deploy its air power. In the much smaller Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani it made some 700 air strikes against Isis fighters.

Isis could elect to hold the city to the end and has been conscripting fighters from Sunni communities under its control. It has also been making diversionary attacks in many parts of Iraq. But it might not want to get into a slogging match with superior forces in which it would suffer heavy losses.

A better strategy for Isis might be to hold Tikrit with a limited number of units using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers while launching counter-attacks with small detachments of 100 men or more with heavy use of suicide bombers.

Even if it captures Tikrit, the Baghdad government will not have solved its main problem, which is that Shia forces, whether in the regular army or the militias, will be pushing into Sunni Arab heartlands. Holding on to Tikrit could be as difficult as recapturing it.

Comments