The combined 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.
Saturday, March 14, 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.
Official figures have not been released by Baghdad or the Iranian command staff headed by Al Qods Brigades chief, the legendary Gen. Qassem Soleimani. But they were crippling.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources have heard of 3,000 dead and wounded, equal to roughly one tenth of the mixed force fighting to retake Tikrit. Entire units were disabled and scattered. Some of the 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.
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.
Up to 60 war dead reach Najaf cemetery every day
After returning from Baghdad, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, put a brave face on the debacle when he spoke on March 11 at a Senate hearing in Washington:
“There is no doubt,” he said, “that Iraqi forces will drive Islamic State militants out of Tikrit.”
Reports put out that day described the forces as having entered the city’s northern districts, although in reality ISIS had by then driven the Iraqis and pro-Iranian forces out of Tikrit.
Iraq’s interior minister Mohammed Al-Ghabban was more forthcoming when he revealed on Monday, March 16 that the Tikrit offensive has “temporarily stopped.”
By then, a pause was said to be necessary as a stream of coffins reached the Iraqi Shite shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Cemetery workers counted as many as 60 burials of war dead every day.
The Tikrit reverse holds instructive lessons for the future of the US-led coalition battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – referred to variously as ISIS, IS or ISIL.
ISIS fights Iraqi-Iranian forces with one hand, uses the other on more fronts
1. ISIS is proving to be a strong and tenacious foe, capable of sophisticated combat tactics and in command of electronic and cyber means of warfare, as well as the traditional terrorist methods of planting bombs and using snipers against incoming forces.
2. The jihadis’ command and control operated flawlessly, reacting swiftly and flexibly to constantly changing battlefield conditions. Even when they pulled back from parts of the town, they retreated in orderly and tactically correct fashion.
3. Equally orderly and well-organized were their logistics, which ascertained that vehicles, ammo and food were delivered as and when needed, and the dead and injured removed. Attempts in the West to present the organization as cracking up internally have no basis in fact. ISIS was able to detach fighting strength from northern and western Iraq and bring it to Tikrit, while also keeping its supply lines on the move from Syria to Iraq 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, with military backgrounds, managed to open up new battlefronts in central and northern Iraq.
Personal humiliation for Al Qods chief Gen. Soleimani
5. The Iraqi army’s showing was poor in contrast. Iraqi battalions trained by US instructors were reported in Western media as approaching the battle to retake Tikrit from ISIS as a test, in advance of 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 for any major mission ahead.
6. For the much-acclaimed Iranian Gen. Soleimani, who took personal command of the forces fighting there, Tikrit was a major humiliation.
7. Iran’s military inadequacies in battle stood out starkly against the Islamic State’s capabilities. To make any headway in the Iraq war arena, Tehran would need to field professional soldiers or regular Revolutionary Guards units, instead of Shiite militias.
8. In the face of this unwelcome dilemma, DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report intense discussions taking place in Tehran among top policy-makers and military chiefs to determine whether or not to throw the Iranian air force into the Iraq war for a serious attempt to dislodge Islamic State forces from Tikrit.
Needed to win: Iranian fighter-bombers, 100,000 Western ground troops
Nothing less than the direct intervention of 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 palace is one of the most heavily fortified sites in the Middle East, containing a warren of bunkers and subterranean tunnels and passages wide and high enough for the passage of vehicles the size of tanks. It also contains atom shelters. The compound is also provided with a network of underground passages for entry and exit.
9. As a last resort, Iran sent over a supply of missiles and rockets in an attempt to batter the jihadi forces into submission. They had no effect.
10. In the battle of Tikrit, the bottom fell out of the Obama administration’s strategy of confining US and its coalition allies in the war on ISIS to the tasks of intelligence-gathering and air strikes, while relegating ground combat to local forces reinforced by Shiite militias under Iranian command.
If the Islamic State is to be rooted out of the one-third of Iraq and Syria the caliphate has grabbed, around 100,000 well-trained Western ground troops will have to be injected into the war.