The Outcome Of The Ongoing Battle For Tikrit Could Be A Gamechanger In Iraq

news
Smoke rises as the Iraqi army, supported by volunteers, battles Islamic State extremists outside Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, March, 4, 2015.
AP Photo

The battle for the Iraqi city of Tikrit is underway after more than a week of fighting between Iraqi army soldiers and Shiite militias against ISIS militants. Over 30,000 soldiers and militiamen backed by jets and helicopters launched a much-anticipated offensive against the ISIS forces currently in control of the city.


For many, the city of Tikrit has special significance, being the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein and his power base of supporters during his decades-long rule. It is also the birthplace of Saddam’s predecessor, former President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, and the traditional seat of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party. For almost 40 years, Iraq’s politics and governance was dominated by natives of Tikrit. While al Anbar province may be the tribal “heart” of Sunni Iraq, Tikrit is its political and intellectual “head.”

Over the last few months, ISIS has already been knocked back on its heels by a newly resurgent Iraqi military, attacks by the Peshmerga in the Iraqi Kurdish region, and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. Yet while its momentum has been checked, ISIS remains an undefeated and extremely capable force. Through polished outreach via social media, the group continues to draw new recruits from Sunni communities in both the Middle East and across the globe. In Syria, ISIS continues to carry on its fight against the Assad regime and moderate rebel groups alike, and over the last few months has metastasized in several other countries, such as Pakistan, Libya, Indonesia, and the Gaza Strip.

One major threat to ISIS is a Shiite-dominated Iraqi military backed by almost exclusively Shiite militias. Recently, these militias have swelled with thousands of new recruits after Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for Iraqis to take arms to defend their homeland. This force is being led, at least in part, by Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force. The Iranians have also backed the force with weapons, training, ammunition, and dozens of military advisors. ISIS, by contrast, is a mix of foreign fighters and disaffected Sunnis from across the region, fighting to maintain its gains in Iraq and its grasp on Sunni-dominated territory.

Tikrit holds serious strategic value to both sides. To successfully capture Mosul, the purported capital of ISIS, Iraqi forces must first reclaim the city of Tikrit. Doing so will put Iraqi forces within striking distance of Baiji, a strategic staging point from which to launch offensive operations on Mosul; it will also help secure lines of communication south to Baghdad and enable Iraqi forces to better cut off the movement of ISIS forces between the provinces of Anbar and Saladin. Success in Tikrit would provide a significant boost to the confidence of the Iraqi military, which will be critical given the tough fights that await them in Mosul and Fallujah. Correspondingly, losing Tikrit would also be a serious blow to the morale of ISIS forces and leadership; instead of growing across the Islamic world, the envisioned caliphate would be losing ground.

Iraqi army soldiers and volunteers prepare to launch mortar shells and rockets against Islamic State militant positions outside Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, March 4, 2015.

Despite the strategic value of Tikrit, the true significance of the battle is a symbolic one. A Shiite-led assault on Tikrit may become the ultimate extension of the Sunni versus Shiite conflict first espoused by ISIS founder, a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, declared all-out war on Shiites in Iraq and orchestrated the beginnings of the sectarian violence across the region, unleashing suicide bombers on Shiite civilian targets, which invited reprisals against Sunni civilians by Shiite militiamen. Much of the escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq over the last decade can be attributed to the chain of events first set in motion by Zarqawi. After all, from a sectarian perspective, the fight pits Sunni insurgents defending Sunni-dominated territory against the Shiite forces of Iraq and Iran --- a scenario that plays perfectly into the apocalyptic end-of-time worldview espoused by many adherents of ISIS.

It was Zarqawi’s vision to spark a Sunni versus Shiite civil war. Now, ISIS, the modern iteration of the organization he founded, is waging a battle of conquest and survival against the very forces Zarqawi swore to exterminate. Losing Tikrit to those very same forces, and Mosul after that, would be the ultimate indictment of Zarqawi’s stated goals.

Ultimately, the outcome of the battle for Tikrit is uncertain. How the battle is conducted will determine whether Zarqawi’s vision will bear fruit. There is no U.S. or coalition oversight of the Iraqi forces surrounding Tikrit. Many of the Iraqi government’s militia forces are suspected of having committed atrocities against Sunni civilian populations after they retook other towns, including alleged revenge killings and summary executions.

The risk of reprisal attacks against Sunni civilians has been felt at the highest levels of Iraq’s government. On Mar. 5, Prime Minister Haider Abadi addressed the issue of sectarian attacks against civilians when he urged troops “to respect human rights and preserve [civilian] property.” Abadi also spoke with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and assured him that Iraqi leadership would “punish any transgression against civilians in the areas of military operation.”

As the assault on Tikrit gets underway, the care and consideration for the safety of Sunni civilians will be key to the battle’s legacy. Major reprisal attacks and indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas will likely cause hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis to flee to Mosul, further complicating any future assault on the ISIS capital, and likely boosting the ranks of extremist group.

Without the safeguarding of Sunni civilians, the attack on Tikrit may have the unintended consequence of literally driving the Sunnis into the hands of ISIS; yet if done properly, it could be a huge step in defeating not only ISIS’ military prowess, but its guiding vision and the vision of its founder as well.

Former Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis (DoD photo)

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who led a Marine task force to Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, said the Washington Post's recent reporting about the U.S. government's pattern of lies about the war over the last two decades is not "revelatory."

Mattis, who was interviewed by the Washington Post's David Ignatius on Friday, also said he does not believe the U.S. government made any efforts to hide the true situation in Afghanistan and he argued the war has not been in vain.

Here are 10 key quotes from Mattis regarding the Washington Post's reporting in the 'Afghanistan Papers.'

Read More Show Less
Cmdr. Sean Shigeru Kido (Navy photo)

The Navy relieved a decorated explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer on Thursday due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command, the Navy announced on Friday.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Air Force airmen from the 405th Expeditionary Support Squadron work together to clear debris inside the passenger terminal the day after a Taliban-led attack at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Brandon Cribelar)

Blasts from Taliban car bombs outside of Bagram Airfield on Wednesday caused extensive damage to the base's passenger terminal, new pictures released by the 45th Expeditionary Wing show.

The pictures, which are part of a photo essay called "Bagram stands fast," were posted on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service's website on Thursday.

Read More Show Less
The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan, June 17, 2017 (U.S. Navy photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

Shortly after seven sailors died aboard USS Fitzgerald when she collided with a merchant ship off Japan in 2017, I wrote that the Fitzgerald's watch team could have been mine. My ship had once had a close call with me on watch, and I had attempted to explain how such a thing could happen. "Operating ships at sea is hard, and dangerous. Stand enough watches, and you'll have close calls," I wrote at the time. "When the Fitzgerald's investigation comes out, I, for one, will likely be forgiving."

The investigations, both public and private, are out, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report assessing the changes to training implemented since the collisions.

So, am I forgiving? Yes — for some.

Read More Show Less
Belgian nurse Augusta Chiwy, left, talks with author and military historian Martin King moments before receiving an award for valor from the U.S. Army, in Brussels, Dec. 12, 2011. (Associated Press/Yves Logghe)

Editor's note: a version of this story first appeared in 2015.

Most people haven't heard of an elderly Belgian-Congolese nurse named Augusta Chiwy. But students of history know that adversity and dread can turn on a dime into freedom and change, and it's often the most humble and little-known individuals who are the drivers of it.

During the very darkest days of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Chiwy was such a catalyst, and hundreds of Americans lived because of her. She died quietly on Aug. 23, 2015, at the age of 94 at her home in Brussels, Belgium, and had it not been for the efforts of my friend — British military historian Martin King — the world may never have heard her astonishing story.

Read More Show Less