Monday, March 23, 2015

Heavy casualties as Iraq forces attempt to retake Tikrit

Reports on casualties in the Iraqi offensive led by an Iranian general and including many Shia militia groups, are now beginning to emerge. The heavy toll may be one reason why the offensive is stalled.
Unofficial reports indicate that already 1,000 of the attackers have been killed. The government refuses to confirm any figures. The offensive was paused last weekend. It was supposed to last only two days while awaiting reinforcements. Now the pause is to continue through this weekend March 21 and 22. Attacks against the Iraqi forces during the pause are still resulting in 100 security forces being brought to a hospital in Samarra each day either wounded or dead according to a source there. About 20,000 are taking part in the operation against Tikrit.
Even the highest-ranking Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was concerned about the skills of the Shiite militia and said that better planning by the government was needed and greater professionalism if the IS militants were to be defeated. Earlier reports had suggested that the offensive was successful with the militants being cornered in a part of central Tikrit up against the Tigris river. While IS forces do appear surrounded, the Iraqi forces are still just in the suburban areas of Tikrit. The vastly outnumbered IS forces have built up formidable defenses that are taking a heavy toll on the attackers. The US has not been involved in carrying out this attack. Iraq decided that it would be carried out by a combination of Shia militia and regular forces under the overall command of an Iranian general.
Many are concerned that the Shia militia will take revenge on the Sunni population for supporting the Islamic State. US General David Petraeus, once the commander of US troops in Iraq even claims that political instability is an even greater threat to Iraq than the Islamic State. He mentioned Shia militia specifically. Revenge actions could exacerbate the sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni in Iraq. Tikrit was Saddam Hussein's home town and its citizens strong supporter of Sunni interests.
There appear to be disagreements among government officials and military leaders of Iraqi special forces as to how to continue the offensive. Some in the government want a full assault against the IS. While this might be successful special forces commanders claim the cost in casualties make that strategy inadvisable. No doubt the Iraqi government would emphasize the successful retaking of Tikrit and ignore the cost. Many worry that some Shia militia are quite willing to suffer casualties in order to wreak revenge on the IS and Sunni supporters. Last summer Tikrit was the scene of the massacre of almost 1,000 Shia air force recruits that IS recorded on video.Reports of the number killed vary as shown on the enclosed video. Hadi al Ameri, who leads the Badr Organization militia refers to the attack on Tikrit as revenge for the attack on the recruits. Iranian advisers are also apparently in favour of an advance no matter the cost.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi wants a better plan. Al-Abadi appears to fear that there will be a US backlash if there is a full assault with Shia militia taking revenge. US commanders were opposed to the Tikrit operation and have not used US air power to support it so far. The Islamic State apparently has only a few hundred fighters in Tikrit compared to the twenty thousand attackers. However their area is heavily fortified with booby traps everywhere with many snipers and suicide bombers ready to defend the area. There are also hundreds of roadside bombs. The militia want to press ahead using artillery and bombing that will inevitably cause significant civilian casualties.
The US is said to be concerned that there will be more abuses by militia and even by security forces the US has trained. There have been numerous videos showing these abuses on the internet. Probably the US is not so much concerned about the casualties and abuses per se as that they will complicate the political situation and exacerbate the sectarian aspects of the Iraq conflict.
For now, it seems that the Iraqi military is moving in heavy equipment to clear booby traps while tightening the ring around the city denying the fighters supplies. A spokesperson for the largest Shia militia The League of Righteousness, Abu Zergawi said that operations would resume in a couple of days after more men and equipment were brought into the area.
Back last November, Iraqi forces launched an assault to retake the town of Baiji and a nearby refinery. They met fierce resistance but finally in December secured the refinery and the town. Later much of the town and surrounding area were retaken. The government has been unable to restart the refinery and it has to be constantly guarded. The Iraqi government would like to retake the larger city of Mosul but given what is happening in Tikrit this seems unlikely to happen any time soon.


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