The offensive launched by a mixed force of the Iraqi army (10,000 troops) and Iranian-led Shiite militias (20,000) to capture Tikrit from the Islamic State has been thrown back, upsetting rosy US-led coalition predictions.
The fighting for this important Sunni city died down – not because the Iraqi troops and their assorted Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistan Shiite allies had thrown in the sponge, but because the casualties inflicted on them by the Islamic State had become too heavy to bear and carry on fighting. This momentous debacle was first revealed in DEBKA Weekly 656 of March 20.
Official figures have still not been released by Baghdad or the Iranian command staff headed by Al Qods Brigades chief, the legendary Gen. Qassem Soleimani. But the losses were crippling – some sources estimating them at roughly one tenth of the mixed force. Entire units were disabled and scattered. Some Iraqi army contingents fled the battlefield in disarray without a word to their officers – repeating their earlier performance last June when ISIS launched its first offensive to seize territory in Iraq.
Iraqi and Iranian officers have since fallen to quarrelling over responsibility for the shambles, especially targeting the most prominent figure, Gen. Hadi Al-Amiri, commander of the Shiite Badr Brigade.
The upshot of the much-heralded battle of Tikrit is acutely embarrassing for the Obama administration, whose plan of campaign against the Islamic State hinged on a swift victory in Tikrit as the prelude to larger operations for turning the tide of war against the jihadis. The setback occurred shortly after Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff assured a Senate hearing in Washington, after visiting Iraq: “There is no doubt that Iraqi forces will drive Islamic State militants out of Tikrit.”
In reality ISIS had by then driven the Iraqis and pro-Iranian forces out of the city and fighting had not resumed.
This episode holds important lessons for the future of the war on ISIS:
1. The Islamic State proved in Tikrit to be not just powerful and tenacious, but also a lot more sophisticated than believed and proficient in the use of electronic and cyber tools of war.
2. Its command and control functioned efficiently and proved able to respond rapidly to constantly changing situations on the battlefield. When the forces needed to withdraw, they did so in orderly and tactically correct fashion.
3. Equally orderly and well-organized were their logistics, which kept vehicles, ammo and food moving as needed and the dead and injured removed. Attempts in the West to present the organization as cracking up internally proved unfounded. ISIS detached fighting strength from northern and western Iraq and moved it to Tikrit, while also keeping its supply lines from Syria to Iraq open under US air strikes.
4. And while holding the line in Tikrit, the ISIS command, consisting mainly of ex-officers of Saddam Hussein’s army and young Westerners – including Americans, Brits, Australians and Canadians with military backgrounds – managed to open up new battlefronts in central and northern Iraq.
5. The Iraqi army’s showing was poor in contrast. Iraqi battalions trained by US instructors were reported in Western media to be treating the battle to retake Tikrit from ISIS as a testing ground, in preparation for the campaign to recover Iraq’s second large city, Mosul. These battalions proved far from ready – even for their initial ordeal – and hardly likely to come up to scratch soon for any major mission.
6. Tikrit was a major humiliation for the much-acclaimed Iranian Gen. Soleimani, who took personal command of the offensive.
7. Iran’s military inadequacies in battle stood out starkly against the Islamic State’s capabilities. To make headway in the Iraq war arena, Tehran would need to field professional soldiers or regular Revolutionary Guards units – not just irregular Shiite militias.
8. This unforeseen dilemma prompted intense discussions among top policy-makers and military chiefs in Tehran to determine whether or not to throw the Iranian air force into Iraq for a serious attempt to dislodge Islamic State forces from Tikrit.
9. Nothing less than direct intervention by Iranian fighter-bomber jets and assault helicopter cover for the Iraqi troops and pro-Iranian militiamen can be expected to have much effect – especially since the jihadis have barricaded themselves inside Saddam Hussein’s massive palace compound of Maqar el-Tharthar on the lake of that name. This is one of the most heavily fortified sites in the Middle East, containing a warren of atomic-bomb-proof bunkers and wide subterranean tunnels and passages. To breach it would call for heavy aerial bombardment, a task which the Iranians are mostly likely to leave to the US Air Force.
10. In the battle of Tikrit, the bottom fell out of the Obama administration’s strategy of limiting to intelligence-gathering and air strikes the US and coalition contribution to the war on ISIS, and leaving ground combat to local forces reinforced by Shiite militias under Iranian command.
The rooting out of the Islamic State from the one-third of Iraq and Syria which the caliphate has grabbed would call for around 100,000 well-trained Western ground troops to be injected into the war.