Iraqi forces try to seal off Islamic State around Tikrit
Battle for militants’ stronghold could determine if move is to be made on Mosul
Iraqi security forces and Shia fighters on a tank in the Salahuddin province on Monday. Iraq’s armed forces, backed by Shia militia, attacked Islamic State strongholds north of Baghdad as they launched an offensive to retake the city of Tikrit and the surrounding Sunni Muslim province of Salahuddin. Photograph: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and Shia militiamen sought to seal off Islamic State fighters in Tikrit and nearby towns on Tuesday, the second day of Iraq’s biggest offensive yet against a stronghold of the Sunni militants.
Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, who has helped co-ordinate Baghdad’s counter-attacks against Islamic State since it seized much of northern Iraq in June, was overseeing at least part of the operation, witnesses told the news agency Reuters.
His presence on the frontline highlights neighbouring Iran’s influence over the Shia fighters who have been key to containing the militants in Iraq.
In contrast, the US-led air coalition, which has been attacking Islamic State across Iraq and Syria, has not yet played a role in Tikrit, the Pentagon said on Monday, perhaps partly because of the high-level Iranian presence.
Iraqi military officials said security forces backed by the Shia militia known as Hashid Shaabi (“Popular Mobilisation”) were advancing gradually, their progress slowed by roadside bombs and snipers.
They have yet to enter Tikrit, the home town of executed former president Saddam Hussein, or the nearby Tigris river town of al-Dour, which officials describe as a major centre for the Islamic State fighters.
On the southern flank of the offensive, army and police officials said government forces had surrounded and sealed off al-Dour, but had not yet launched an assault on the town, a source in military operations command said.
To the north, they captured a village close to Tikrit, the army said.
Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, was directing operations on the eastern flank from a village about 55km from Tikrit called Albu Rayash, captured from Islamic State two days ago.
With him were two Iraqi Shia paramilitary leaders: the leader of the Hashid Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, and Hadi al-Amiri, who leads the Badr Organisation, a powerful Shi’ite militia.
“(Soleimani) was standing on top of a hill pointing with his hands towards the areas where Islamic State are still operating,” said a witness who was accompanying security forces near Albu Rayash.
Islamic State fighters have staged several suicide bomb attacks against the army and militia in recent days. Twitter accounts linked to Islamic State supporters named one as “Abu Daoud al-Amriki (American)”, suggesting he was a US citizen, saying he had detonated a vehicle packed with explosives.
The offensive is the biggest in the Salahuddin region north of Baghdad since last summer, when Islamic State killed hundreds of Iraqi army soldiers who had abandoned their base at Camp Speicher outside Tikrit.
Several Shia Hashid Shaabi fighters have described this week’s campaign – which has been given the title “Here I am, Messenger of God” – as revenge for the Speicher killings. Prime minister Haider al-Abadi has urged them to protect civilians in Salahuddin, a mainly Sunni Muslim province.
The drive follows several failed attempts to push the militants out of Tikrit. Since Islamic State declared a caliphate last year in territories under its control in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces have not managed to recapture and control a single city.
But months of the US-led air strikes, backed up by the Shia militias, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi soldiers, have contained Islamic State in Iraq and pushed it back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala.
The Tikrit battle will have a major impact on plans to move further north and recapture Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State rule.
If the offensive stalls, it will complicate and delay a move on Mosul. A quick victory would give Baghdad momentum, but any retribution against local Sunnis would imperil efforts to win over Mosul’s mainly Sunni population.
To the west of Mosul, Islamic State fighters attacked Kurdish forces in the town of Sinjar on Monday, a senior peshmerga source said. Nine peshmerga and 45 militants were killed in the fighting, which began with a suicide car bomb in the Nasr quarter of the town.
Islamic State “want to show people they can still attack and inflict losses on the peshmerga”, the source said. Kurdish forces currently control around 30 per cent of the town of Sinjar, as well as the hills to the north and the mountain overlooking it.