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Apr 1, 2015 | 18:43 GMT

The Battle for Tikrit Enters Its Final Hour

The Battle for Tikrit Enters its Final Hour
(AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Editor's Note: The following report consolidates some of Stratfor's most recent analyses on the Tikrit offensive, updated in reverse chronological order. For an overview of the offensive itself, read our foundational analysis; the battle for Tikrit reveals deeper truths. For a comprehensive review of the operation, lessons learned from the battle of Tikrit covers the matter in detail. 

March 26 - March 31

Although a March 31 announcement by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that Tikrit is recaptured may prove premature, it appears that the operation is in its final stages and that Baghdad has enough combat power to complete the painstaking clearance of Islamic State fighters from the city.

Despite some success of limited bombing missions against fixed Islamic State positions carried out by U.S. aircraft over Tikrit, Western involvement proved unpopular with Shiite militias contributing to the offensive. Following the announcement of Washington's participation at the invitation of the Iraqi government, a number of Shiite militias including the Hezbollah Brigades said they were suspending operations. Despite indignation from the Shiite militia camp, the air support came at a crucial time for the stalled offensive. Cut-off, dug-in and desperate, the remaining Islamic State fighters in Tikrit had saturated every approach route with improvised explosive devices and sniper fire. Hoping to exact a severe toll on the attacking forces, Tikrit's last defenders succeeded in blunting the initially successful thrust to clear the city and surrounding areas.

As well as pinpointing the remaining Islamic State strongpoints, the airstrikes — coordinated through the Joint Operation Center in Baghdad — employed advanced precision-guided munitions to reduce the risk of non-combatant casualties. Precision lethality is an important factor, especially considering that Islamic State positions are in places such as Saddam Hussein's palace complex, well constructed and easily defendable. Al-Abadi's March 26 visit to Tikrit may have been an attempt to encourage despondent militias to continue their participation. On March 27 a spokesman for the Popular Crowd militia repeated the statement that the group is a state institution and, as such, subject to the order of Iraq's prime minister.

Washington's involvement in an attack intended to be led by Iraqi security forces (supported by Iranian advisors and secular militias) has angered some, thinning the ranks of an already depleted force. Yet, the apparently limited duration of the airstrikes offers the Shiite militias a way back in. As of March 30 only one piece of ordnance had been dropped from a U.S. aircraft, leading some groups to consider rejoining the offensive. While the complete clearance of the city may yet take days, it seems as though victory is all but assured for Baghdad in its endeavor to free Tikrit from the Islamic State. 

March 25

U.S.-led coalition aircraft have carried out offensive operations against Islamic State positions in central Tikrit under cover of darkness. A senior U.S. official said that the Iraqi government in Baghdad had specifically requested U.S. air power to reignite the stalled offensive to uproot the remaining Islamic State positions in Tikrit. The U.S. Air Force began surveillance missions over Tikrit from March 20, but had avoided flying combat missions in locations where Iranian advisers or Shiite militias were operating. This is now no longer the case.

It is likely that intelligence collected from reconnaissance flights identified known Islamic State positions in Tikrit, which U.S.-led coalition aircraft can strike with precision. U.S. forces will have little choice but to increase the level of cooperation with Iranian elements in Iraq as they operate in closer proximity. Although the involvement of the coalition will invigorate the stalled assault on remaining Islamic State strongpoints, the United States could be criticized for providing — perceived — direct assistance to sectarian Shiite forces on the ground. 

Although the airstrikes could be limited in scope, engaging high-value targets in the city, they are likely the opening stages of a broader air offensive in support of the security forces amassed round Tikrit. Any disagreement between Baghdad's and Tehran's forces on the ground over whether direct U.S. support is required could undermine the cohesion between Iraqi security forces and Iranian and Shiite elements. If the cooperation between the U.S.-led coalition, Baghdad and Tehran works, however, it could become a force composition model for operations against Islamic State forces elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. 

March 19-24

Progress in the battle for Tikrit remains stagnant as the operation enters its fourth week. Islamic State fighters are holed up in the center of the city, resisting attempts to displace them. The Iraqi security forces — supported by Iranian advisers, Shiite militias and some Sunni tribal fighters — have sustained significant casualties during attempts to penetrate and clear the Islamic State positions. Mostly or almost completely cut off from their supply lines, the Islamic State elements in Tikrit are relying on stockpiled ammunition and supplies, and they have surrounded themselves by a ring of improvised explosive devices.

The U.S.-led coalition's air campaign continues to engage Islamic State positions in Iraq, but so far, it has avoided areas where Iranian advisers or Shiite militias are operating, namely Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. This is largely because of the political dynamic between Tehran and Washington. Another reason is that Iran is supporting Iraqi security forces in Tikrit while the United States has agreed to support the offensive to retake Mosul, a bigger and more complex operation. However, recent reporting indicates that elements of the Iraqi army are dissatisfied with the stalled offensive in Tikrit and feel that U.S.-led close-air support with precision-guided weapons is the key to uprooting the remaining Islamic State fighters in the city's center.

The call for such a move was strongly opposed by Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the successor to the Badr Brigades. Al-Ameri is very close to the commander of the overseas operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. Iran's Quds force has been heavily involved in fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq, and Suleimani has personally adopted a coordinating role on the ground. Tehran has been quiet about the suggestion of U.S.-led aircraft flying missions in the Tikrit operation. Likewise, it commented little when the U.S. Air Force said it has been conducting reconnaissance flights over Tikrit since March 21 and is supplying Iraqi security forces with intelligence.

It remains to be seen whether the Iraqi army will officially request close-air support from the U.S.-led coalition, and even if it does, whether Washington will agree to provide it. If coalition airstrikes do target Tikrit, however, important questions arise over how the United States and Iran share the same battlespace. Were the United States to begin air combat missions against Islamic State positions in Tikrit, it would have to coordinate carefully with Iran at the military and political levels, and serious de-confliction would have to take place on the ground, especially if the United States deployed air traffic control personnel.

From the Iranian perspective, precision bombing is not necessarily a bad thing, even if it comes from a traditional adversary. Not only could advanced air support prevent the Tikrit offensive from stalling completely, a potential source of embarrassment for Iran, it could also speed up the fall of city. Another important factor is that bringing in the United States could help Iran deflect blame should misguided ordnance fall on Sunni or Shiite populations. However, the possibility of civilian casualties alone may be enough to deter the coalition, which is unwilling to risk non-combatant deaths.

March 17-18

Iraqi security forces surrounding Tikrit continue to receive reinforcements ahead of the final phase of the operation to clear Islamic State fighters from the heart of the city. The call to battle has attracted fighters from popular volunteer groups including the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous, the Peace Brigades and their affiliates. Senior Iraqi army sources are keen to emphasize that many of the militias have experience fighting in built-up areas and that the Tikrit operation as a whole has played out to a largely predetermined timeline. In fact, the success of the security forces, heavily supported by Iran, has so far exceeded expectations.

However, the most difficult phase is yet to come. While combat engineers endeavor to clear the approaches to Tikrit, removing improvised and conventional explosives, a concerted bombing campaign is softening up Islamic State positions in downtown Tikrit. A combination of light and heavy artillery, fixed wing aircraft, attack helicopters and artillery rockets continue to pound targets inside the city.

Following up on reports that Iran sent advanced missile systems to Salahuddin province, U.S. military advisers expressed concern about the use of Iranian heavy weapons in the fight against the Islamic State, given their indiscriminate nature and potency. The Shiite militias are increasingly well-equipped with weapons and materiel supplied by Tehran. Ahmad al-Asadi, a spokesperson for the People's Mobilization Forces, said that Tehran had supplied weapons and ammunition "without limit or conditions." Previously, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned that the unselective use of ordnance could exacerbate sectarian tensions on the ground.

The prospect of reprisal killings against Islamic State fighters and those believed to have aided them is very real, exacerbated by the discovery of at least four mass graves, unearthed in the vicinity of Albu Ajeel village, east of Tikrit. The remains are thought to belong to Shiite fighters, from nearby Contingency Operating Base Speicher, reportedly killed in the Islamic State assault in June that forced the Iraqi army to withdraw. Around 1,700 trainees were billeted in the contingency operating base — also known as Spyker Air Base — at the time.

A further concern for the United States and coalition forces in general is what happens when the Islamic State has been ousted from its strongholds. The first and second Gulf Wars highlighted the problems that can arise in Iraq when a breakdown in order occurs in the wake of intense fighting. Well-armed Shiite militias directly contribute to the fight against Islamic State and, as well as holding a grudge against any Sunnis they suspect of collusion, will be well-placed to exploit any power vacuum in the aftermath of military operations. Though leaflets dropped by Iraqi helicopters have promised any surrendering fighters a fair and unbiased trial, it remains to be seen whether that promise will be honored.

The Coalition Focus on Stabilization

The inaugural meeting of the Coalition Stabilization Working Group took place in Berlin on March 18. Drawing from remarks made in Baghdad two days earlier, a speech by the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, John Allen, praised the members of the coalition, highlighting Germany and the United Arab Emirates in particular. Over the course of the address, Allen emphasized not only the fiscal cost of the endeavor but also the requirement to synchronize civilian stabilization efforts with the military operations that inevitably precede them.

The establishment of a coalition-supported stabilization task force in Baghdad indicates an awareness of the problems associated with the creation of power vacuums in Iraq. Allen highlighted Tikrit in particular as an upcoming candidate for stabilization efforts, emphasizing four key tenets: the clearance of the Islamic State, the security and policing component in the aftermath, the restoration of local governance and, finally, the provision of essential services.

The necessity for Iraqi forces to lead the way in efforts against the Islamic State illustrates the general consensus among the coalition countries: that while the militant forces need to be neutralized, there is no stomach for the committal of significant external ground forces. Money, close air support, weapons and limited numbers of advisers are likely to remain the order of the day, especially for Western countries that have no desire to become embroiled once more in a Middle Eastern ground campaign.

March 14-16

After two weeks of fairly steady gains by security forces on the ground, the battle for Tikrit appears to have hit a sticking point. As Stratfor previously noted, the most difficult part of any urban operation is the clearance phase — physically rooting the enemy out from every defended area and hiding place. Having successfully encircled Tikrit, the Iraqi army and Shiite militias, supported by Iranian advisers and some Sunni tribal fighters, now have to eliminate the Islamic State forces contained within. 

Completely cut off for a number of days, the remaining Islamic State fighters have withdrawn to a number of defensive positions and main defended areas in the heart of Tikrit's downtown. A number of militants are also holed up in the Saddam-era palace complex, proving difficult to dislodge. Although the security forces have numerical, technological and logistical superiority, the extremely rigorous defense by Islamic State has made advancing the final kilometers slow and costly. Thousands of improvised explosive devices and conventional munitions have been seeded throughout Tikrit, defeating vehicles and dismounted infantry alike. Islamic State sharpshooters have also targeted combat engineers attempting to clear the devices.

The employment of vehicle-borne IEDs and suicide bombers raises the stakes for the security forces, adding another layer of threat and complexity to the already-hazardous three-dimensional urban battlespace. The presence of civilians is a further complication. Security forces are trying to move Tikrit's population away from the fighting, incurring further delays. The risk of collateral damage is extremely high in built-up areas, and reports indicate that the Islamic State is preventing local Iraqis from fleeing, valuing their use as human shields. There are also believed to be a number of high-level Islamic State commanders trapped in Tikrit as well, personnel who have an intelligence value if captured alive.

The requirement to be methodical, prevent civilian casualties and leave some of the enemy alive will be a serious test for the Iraqi security forces. It will also put front line personnel in extreme danger, which has already been reflected in the mounting number of security force dead and wounded, and the steady stream of reinforcements and battlefield casualty replacements coming up from the south.

In addition to the friction on the ground, Stratfor sources indicate that tension is increasing at the political level, too. The taking of Tikrit is a major milestone in the fight against the Islamic State and Baghdad cannot afford a debacle. Also, the Iranian military advisers who have been providing guidance and support to Iraqi forces have boasted of their ability to manage Tikrit without U.S.-led coalition support. As forward momentum grinds slower and slower, elements of the Iraqi army are beginning to assert that the precision of coalition airstrikes is key to unlocking Tikrit. However, this is an untenable position for both Washington and Tehran. The United States, along with coalition partners and Kurdish peshmerga, is committed to supporting the assault on Mosul, which is expected to be the true test of Iraqi security forces. Iran is taking the lead in Tikrit. It is unlikely from a purely diplomatic perspective that either Iran or the United States would be content with sharing the same battlespace, for whatever reason.

The U.S.-led coalition may well be able to provide decisive air intervention in the battle for Tikrit, but not while the Iranians are involved. And, pulling out is something Tehran is not prepared to do, not while it has its own geopolitical interests in the region. So, for now, the battle for Tikrit is on the verge of stalling. For the security forces to press home the advantage they have gained thus far, Baghdad must accept that the bloodiest days of the battle are yet to come. 

March 12-13

The Islamic State continues to give up ground in Tikrit after days of intense fighting. The Iraqi army, supported by Shiite militias, Iranian military advisers and some Sunni tribal fighters, is consolidating its position around central Tikrit. Pockets of resistance remain in Saddam's palace and outlying areas, but the main Islamic State force is largely contained in the central business district and industrial belt.

Reports indicate that the entire east bank of the Tigris River is under control of security forces and that the Islamic State's northern supply route is severed, preventing further reinforcements or exfiltration. Although Islamic State fighters have conceded territory, they continue to exact a cost on the attacking forces — urban terrain is a force multiplier for defenders. As well as employing conventional weapons and skirmish tactics, they are making extensive use of improvised explosive devices.

Entering the built-up area of downtown Tikrit, the security forces are heavily channeled and must expose themselves to booby traps, murder holes and sniper fire as they begin the clearance in earnest. Although the Iraqi state media claims that hundreds of Islamic State fighters have been killed so far in Tikrit, the death toll continues to rise on the side of the security forces as well. Sources report a high number of Iraqi casualties being evacuated back toward Baghdad, with reinforcements being sent forward. Although government-backed forces have the overwhelming advantage, as Islamic State forces contract into positions that concentrate their manpower, they may be able to achieve local parity with attacking elements.

The battle for Tikrit is entering its final, bloody stages. Security forces will have to clear street by street, building by building and room by room, inevitably incurring casualties as they do so. For the remaining Islamic State militants, theirs is now a fight to the death, with dwindling numbers and limited ammunition. The operation has so far been a success, but one with significant casualties on both sides — and more to come in the immediate future.

March 11

The Tikrit offensive continues to make headway. Although armed resistance is lighter than anticipated, the sheer amount of explosive devices seeded along the main axes of advance has slowed the attacking forces. Nevertheless, Iraqi security forces are solidifying their hold on the Al Qadaisah neighborhood to the north. To the south, Tikrit general hospital is in government hands, and fighting continues to wrest control of the palace complex — built by Saddam Hussein on the west bank of the Tigris — from the Islamic State. According to recent reports, the east bank of the river is almost entirely under the control of security forces and Shiite militias.

Iraq's minister of state for provincial affairs, Ahmed Abdullah al-Jubouri, said the Islamic State has placed around 6,000 IEDs and land mines in and around Tikrit. The threat from such devices is the single-largest impediment to the advance of ground forces into Tikrit. Locating and disposing of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle explosives is time consuming as well as inherently dangerous.

Sources on the ground indicate that Islamic State fighters continue to leave the Tikrit battlespace at their own risk; Iraqi news media reported that the Islamic State is executing some fleeing fighters to dissuade other potential deserters. Iraqi aviation assets have also been taking their toll on Islamic State convoys moving between Tikrit and Hawija, a militant bastion northeast of Beiji, on the route to Kirkuk. As well as using U.S.-produced AH-64 attack helicopters, the Iraqi army is deploying Eurocopter EC635-T2 light helicopter gunships, armed with heavy machine guns and unguided rockets. Russia has supplied four Mi-35M Hind-E troop-carrying attack helicopters and three Mi-28 Havoc attack helicopters to aid in the fight against the Islamic State.

Baghdad is keen to emphasize the inclusive nature of the operation, with the Iraqi army taking the lead in the fighting, supported by Shiite militias and around 1,000 Sunni fighters, and Iran assisting with military advisers and some weaponry. However, the involvement of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in an offensive on Iraqi soil has generated concern in some areas of Baghdad's political establishment as well as in neighboring countries: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal accused Iran of trying to take over Iraq in a March 5 news conference.

There is also concern among the Kurdish and Sunni communities in Iraq regarding the conduct of pro-government Shiite militias. The communities are worried that reprisal attacks against Islamic State fighters may extend to any Sunnis who were alleged to have supported or colluded with militants. There are also concerns that, having established some degree of local control, Shiite fighters will be reluctant to relinquish their power, possibly fueling further sectarian violence in the vacuum of a post-Islamic State Iraq. 

March 6-10

Iraqi forces, consisting of regular army formations and local Shiite militias and assisted by Iranian advisers, continue to tighten the noose around Islamic State forces in Tikrit. The outlying town of al-Alam has been secured to the northeast. Closer to Tikrit itself, the suburb of al-Dawr has been secured to the south, the Al Qadaisah neighborhood to the north, and parts of Albu Ajeel are in the hands of Baghdad's forces. Iraqi formations to the west of Tikrit have secured the entire west side, forcing Islamic State fighters to withdraw back to the city proper.

Sources on the ground reported that missile and artillery fire had been directed at Islamic State strongholds in the center of Tikrit, while unconfirmed reports said militants had been seen fleeing north from Tikrit and al-Alam to Beiji, and onward to Hawija. Despite efforts to completely encircle Tikrit, the Islamic State has been able to maintain a supply line to the north. The commander of Iraqi army aviation, Gen. Hamid al-Maliki, drew attention to the rate of attrition achieved by Iraqi close air support, which includes AH-64 attack helicopters built and supplied by the United States. The general said March 10 that over 30 vehicles used by the Islamic State had been destroyed in and around Tikrit and that a significant number of casualties had been inflicted on the group.

 

U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Iraq's prime minister and defense minister in Baghdad on March 9 to discuss the ongoing military operations in Salahuddin and Anbar provinces. Dempsey appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on March 3, calling the involvement of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the fight for Tikrit positive, as long as their presence did not exacerbate tensions with the Sunni community, something that could easily derail the unity of Baghdad's forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

March 1-5

The Iraqi army made gains in rural areas east of Tikrit, having established a blocking position to the west. By capturing the suburbs of al-Dawr to the south and al-Alam to the north, Islamic State fighters have increasingly been forced to fall back to the city. In an attempt to slow advancing forces and disrupt airstrikes from Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters, the militants set fire to the Ajil oil field, creating massive clouds of smoke. 

Reports continue to indicate that Iraqi attempts to lock down Tikrit have not been successful, with Islamic State fighters still possessing limited freedom of movement. Sources on the ground claim that elements of the Islamic State leadership in Tikrit have already fled the city. Although it is unlikely that the Islamic State would relinquish its grip on Tikrit without extracting a cost on the attacking forces, the exodus of ground commanders could indicate an expectation that the city will fall. Additional reports, however, suggest that Islamic State forces have abandoned Qayyarah Air Base, south of Mosul, to free up reinforcements for Tikrit. This would indicate the militant group is prepared to stand its ground, or in the worst case, counter attack in force.

Improvised explosive devices and sniper fire are slowing Baghdad's forces and anti-Islamic State militias. A roadside bomb in the southern al-Dawr district killed the commander of the Shiite militia League of Righteousness on March 4, along with his bodyguard. Other pro-Iraqi government forces discovered a bomb-making factory in the Naoura district, recovering some 40 explosive devices ready for use.

After tightening the perimeter, about 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militia fighters are poised to attack the city with air cover from rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. Fighting in the urban environment will be costlier for the military because the built-up terrain gives the defending Islamic State forces a significant advantage. An estimated 28,000 civilians have already fled the city in anticipation of the coming assault.

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