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Iranian-backed Shiite militias lead Iraq's fight to retake Tikrit

The Iraqi Security Forces, supported by several Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Sunni tribal fighters, have launched an offensive to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State, which has held the central Iraqi city since June 2014. Massive columns of Shiite militas, including some groups that are listed by the US as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, have been leading the fight in Tikrit.

The operation, which involves more than thirty thousand Iraqi security personnel and militia forces, started on the morning of March 2. According to Al Jazeera, Iraqi forces and allied militias attacked the city from three sides while Iraqi aviation launched an aerial bombardment.

As of yet, the US has not launched any airstrikes in support of the operation. The US has refused to support the Tikrit offensive because Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) elements are actively supporting the operation, anonymous US officials have told The Wall Street Journal.

Although the US military has refused to provide air support for the offensive due to Iran's involvement, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran's involvement could be "a positive thing" if the Shiite militias do not lash out at Sunnis in and around Tikrit. Dempsey also estimated that the militias make up more than two-thirds of the fighting force, The Associated Press noted. Shiite militias have been accused of launching reprisal attacks against Sunni civilians and executing scores of people after liberating areas from Islamic State control.

Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force, the external operations wing of the IRGC, has been spotted near Tikrit. Soleimani's forces are tasked with supporting the Iraqi military and Shiite militias, including the Badr Brigade, Kata'ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), Asaib al Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata'ib Imam Ali, and Muqtada al Sadr's Promised Day Brigade (or Peace Brigade). The Shiite militias have been instrumental in reinforcing beleaguered and demoralized Iraqi forces, and have helped retake some areas in Iraq, including Jurf al Sakhar and Amerli.

Soleimani has been spotted with units loyal to the Kata'ib Imam Ali and the Badr Organization. In one photo, a clean shaven Soleimani oversees a military parade of Kata'ib Imam Ali at Camp Speicher, a sprawling base outside of Tikrit. In another photo, Soleimani is seen meeting with militia commanders near the city. Kata'ib Imam Ali, which is allegedly led by Shabal al Zaidi, a former leader in Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army, is just one of many Iranian-backed militia taking part in the Tikrit offensive.

The Badr Organization, which is led by Hadi al Amiri, is another such group. In one photo seen on Twitter, Amiri, who is closely allied to Soleimani, is seen meeting with Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the head of Hezbollah Brigades. In a video uploaded to YouTube, a giant Hezbollah Brigades convoy is seen moving towards Tikrit. The US State Department designated the Hezbollah Brigades as a terrorist organization in July 2009 and described the militia as "a radical Shia Islamist group with an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, US, and Coalition targets in Iraq."

Asaib al Haq has also released a video showing a giant convoy heading towards Tikrit. Asaib al Haq is considered one of the most dangerous Iranian-supported Shiite militias. Several of its leaders are listed by the US as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

Status of offensive is unclear

The Iraqi military, Shiite militias, and Iranian forces reportedly have been able to retake two districts from the Islamic State, Iraqi military commanders have told the BBC. The reports should be viewed with caution, as in the past, Iraqi commanders provided optimistic reports on previous attempts to retake Tikrit, only to be proven wrong.

The Iraqi forces and its militia allies have allegedly been able to retake Al Tin, a district northeast of the city, as well as al Abeid in the west. The BBC also reported fighting in the nearby district of Qadisiya. In a photo circulating online, the Iraqi flag is seen flying over the town of Al Dor near Tikrit. This photo cannot be confirmed, although fighting in Al Dor has been reported.

Iraqi forces and their Shiite militia auxiliaries may have a difficult time sustaining a prolonged offensive or siege of Tikrit. The city is in central Salahaddin province, a stronghold of the Islamic State. The Iraqi forces and militias must provide logistical support to a large force by securing a long supply line from Samarra, and it will be exposed to attacks from marauding Islamic State forces.

The Military Times has reported that progress in Tikrit has been slowed due to the many improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have been planted around the town. Quoting the spokesman of Iraq's Interior Ministry, The Military Times says that the Islamic State has "littered major roadways and routes with mines." According to Al Mada Press, there are 8,000 IEDs near Tikrit alone. The Islamic State has also countered the offensive with suicide bombings. One suicide bomber who detonated on ISF and Shiite militia personnel as they assembled for the Tikrit offensive near Samarra was allegedly an American citizen. Abu Dawoud al Amriiki, as he was later identified, was said to have "killed and wounded dozens" in an Islamic State video release.

The Islamic State has also released several images purporting to be from Tikrit in a bid to counter positive statements from Iraqi officials. These photos cannot be authenticated. These photos show Islamic State fighters manning a checkpoint near the entrance to the city, as well as its fighters targeting Iraqi and Shiite militia personnel near the city with technicals, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. In one photo, an Islamic State front-end loader is seen building fortifications near the city.

Other photos released by the Islamic State show its fighters engaging Iraqi and Shiite militia personnel in an unnamed place in Salahadin province. The pictures show mortars being fired on Iraqi positions, as well as RPG's and fire from technicals. One picture shows a Humvee being hit by an RPG and another shows an Islamic State fighter shooting an RPG at a Humvee that is driving away. Several rockets are also fired on Iraqi positions in these photos.

[Source: By Caleb Weiss and Bill Roggio, The Long War Journal, NJ, 04Mar15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 13Mar15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.