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Posted at: May 28, 2015, 1:35 AM; last updated: May 27, 2015, 10:36 PM (IST)

Why the fall of Tikrit is so significant

For Iraqi Shias and Iran, taking control of Tikrit has a special meaning. Tikrit was closely identified with Saddam Hussein.

Down history lane

  • Rank and file of Iraq's internal security organs, the army and the Republican Guards, instruments of the Baathist authoritarian rule, had Tikritis in salient positions.Saddam was seen as their main scourge by a majority of Iraqi Shias.
  • Their uprisings in Najaf and Kerbala, following the defeat of the Iraqi army at the hands of the US-led coalition forces in the second Gulf War in March '91, were suppressed by Iraqi forces, mainly the Republican Guards , inflicting savage reprisals. There is now the reported cold- blooded massacre last June by IS of more than a thousand young Shia recruits.
  • Baathist propaganda machinery projected the Iraq-Iran war as Saddam's Qadissiya, a throw-back to the 7th century historic battle in southern Iraq between the Muslim Arab armies and the Persians when the latter were defeated and evicted from Iraq.
  • Resurrection of the 7th century battle in the 20th century conflict had injected a racial and sectarian dimension into the Iran-Iraq war.

TIKRIT,  the birthplace  and the burial site of Saddam Hussain, has been  a fulcrum    in the Sunni  heartland  of Iraq that had   fought  the US forces  from 2003  until their withdrawal  in 2011 and   since  maintained a continuous  challenge to the predominantly   Shia regime in Baghdad, accusing it of  sectarian bias, ill-treatment and   vindictiveness.  Tikrit  also contributed   some  other top  leaders of Iraq in the past. Colonel Ahmed  Hasan Al-Bakr, the first President of  Baathist Iraq  hailed from Tikrit. Izzat brahim Al-Douri, (the sole  surviving  member of Saddam Husain's inner circle until his reported death last month  in Tikrit), who  carried on    the Baathist legacy   under the appellation  of Nakshabandi Order that played a role in Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL)'s    takeover of Mosul and Tikrit  last June,  hailed  from Al Dour,  an outlying town of Tikrit. Saddam Hussain's own brother-in-law Adnan Khairallah who belonged to Tikrit was Defence Minister until his death in a helicopter crash in the  late 1980s. Until 2003, Iraq's intelligence chiefs were mostly from Tikrit. Tikrit  also happens to be  the birthplace of Salahuddin al-Ayoubi, ethnically a Kurd  and known to the world as  Saladdin, who led  the Muslim armies in the 12th century crusades   and  retook Jerusalem from  Christian control.  Tikrit was renamed Salahuddin, symbolising the connection with Jerusalem’s conqueror.

Conflicting interests

The initiation, conduct and denouement of the month-long battle  that ended in wresting the control of Tikrit  from the grip of Islamic State by the Iraqi government  recently,  mirrors  a complex web of   conflicting  interests  among  Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, the Iraqi  government Iran and US. It is anchored  in differing  sectarian,ethnic, geopolitical and security considerations  that have, however, made a common cause in fighting  IS. The battle line-up for  Tikrit    consisted of an estimated 30,000-strong Iraqi force composed of 10,000 from the army, 20,000 from an  alliance  of Shia militias called Hashd al-Shabi and a small  Sunni tribal contingent, with  Iranian military advisers   in charge of the overall  strategy. The Iraqi air force played a role  initially until supportive US air strikes became inescapable for an early end to the fighting and had to be called in willy-nilly. As for  IS, its strength was variously put, at different  times of the battle,  between  1,000 and 3,000 fighters  that  included  Sunni jihadists drawn from different  countries  and ex-Baathists. IS was  on the defensive, completely isolated by its savage acts and  with its fighting abilities dented by the  crippling   US  and allied airstrikes on its positions  elsewhere in Iraq and  Syria. Also the UN sanctions,  global  watch  against its sale of  stolen oil  and  antiques   and a  fall in inflow of new recruits into its ranks, thanks to the guard against travel of misguided youth to its hideouts, too contributed.

US role

The Iraqi offensive that started in the beginning of  March  achieved initial  successes  without  US air support  in occupying most of the outer  areas   and in encircling  Tikrit  city, depriving the IS fighters of   fresh supplies and reinforcements. However, by March 25, the final thrust to  enter  Tikrit city was halted  to   minimise casualties from  booby traps and snipers and to  work  out a  new battle strategy. Before long, it dawned on  Iraqi planners that any delay in finishing the campaign for Tikrit  would be to the advantage of IS  and that direct  air support from US  was indispensable  for an early, successful conclusion and to  reduce the losses. Within days of US air strikes, Iraqi forces took control of the entire Tikrit.  There is no   information on the casualties suffered by  each side. Going by conventional wisdom, the attacking force  would have taken more casualties. The unilateral pause by the government forces   after three weeks  of  advance, followed by the US involvement on an appeal, is a pointer towards this. 

Significance of the campaign

The  Iraqi  offensive in Tikrit is noteworthy  on several  counts. Firstly, this was the third  attempt to evict  IS   from  Tikrit. The earlier two attempts by the   Iraqi army,   without   Iranian advisers  or a  direct  US role  had  ended in failure. Viewed  in  the light of the western assessment of a year or so as the  time required to restore   the   Iraqi army battered by the IS in Mosul last June  into a  fighting force, its performance in retaking  Tikrit in March   seems    a remarkable turnaround, apparently  under  Iranian direction. Secondly, until the Tikrit offensive,Tehran's long-suspected military presence in Iraq was  kept under  wraps and denied by Iran and Iraq, though news of the  killing  of its officers earlier  by the IS near  Baghdad  could not be suppressed.  With the Tikrit campaign, Iran's close involvement  in Iraq was  no longer a covert affair with the media  in both the countries  reporting from the very beginning  the presence   in  the battle zone of redoubtable  General Qassem Soleimani  the  commander of the Al Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 

Thirdly, the Tikrit campaign offers   a glimpse of the   converging   stakes and early   signs  of  an  evolving modus vivendi  between  the US  and Iran in fighting  the IS in Iraq, while   opposed to each other everywhere else.  Despite  existential  threats  from the IS,  Iran showed   extreme reluctance  to fight the IS together with US because of  a  deep distrust of   American intentions in the region, the  economic sanctions imposed   to roll back its  alleged nuclear  weapon programme, branding its  Al-Quds Force a terrorist organisation, and  support to overthrow the  pro-Iranian Bashar Assad regime in  Syria. In fact, in the popular narrative  purveyed by the Iranian and  pro-Shiite media of Iraq, the IS  is   nothing but  a covert  creation of the US to fight  Shias  and to topple Bashar Assad govt in Damascus. Given the history of the US-Iran friction, a joint  fight against  the IS is not a political option for Iran. As a corollary, the Shiite regime in Iraq with close  links  to Tehran   has   ruled out  US troops on ground in the fight against the IS  and merely  pressed for speedy delivery of  US weapons and aircraft. US had no direct  role   initially in the Tikrit battle, being kept away from the Iran-directed offensive until  its  air support became indispensable. The US Secretary of Defence was quoted in early March  as saying that Iraq did not ask for air support in Tikrit.  

In fact, Iraq did not even consult   US over the timing or the course of operations of the Tikrit campaign, though  the US  claimed to have had advance knowledge. Formidable resistance from the IS and the  ensuing stalemate eventually  led to Iraq accepting the US air cover, complying with the US condition to keep Shia militias and Iranians away from the battle zone, though the latter two claimed that  they withdrew on their own in protest against US involvement. (Curiously, the US' direct  involvement in the Tikrit battle in response to an  Iraqi request  coincided with the breakthrough in Geneva  in the US-led  six-power talks  with Iran over the latter's nuclear programme in end March).  By excluding   Iranians and Shiite militia  from the battle zone, US has signalled   to Sunnis, within and outside Iraq,  its  neutrality in   the sectarian polarisation and distanced  itself from a potential  retributive  brutality of Shia militias against  Tikrit residents. Fourthly, It would be interesting to compare the US air strikes against the IS in the obscure  Syria-Turkey border   town of Kobane in aid of Kurdish militia in Jan-Feb with that in  Tikrit in March in support of the Iraqi army. It took  weeks for the US air force to bring  the IS to its knees   in Kobane,  while in   Tikrit  it took the US only a few days  to subdue IS. This lends support to the view  that  in fighting the IS, the US is more focused on  Iraq than in   Syria where both US and IS aim at  ousting  Bashar Assad.  

Fifthly, Iraq allowed the experienced Kurdish militia Peshmarga only a marginal role in Tikrit. The autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan has an IOU to Iran for the latter's timely supplies of arms and ammunition last June that helped  its militia in   fending  off the   advance of the IS on the Kurdish capital  Erbil. Further,  Kurdistan is  on the northern edge of Tikrit area.  The Kurdish militia thus  could have been involved  operationally in the  Iranian directed offensive to  put pressure on IS from  the north of Tikrit, somewhat easing the situation  for Iraqi forces moving in from the other directions. The virtual exclusion  of Kurds therefore  seems to be a political fallout of  Baghdad-Erbil friction.   

Deep distrust  and  on-and-off tiffs  between  Kurds and the Iraqi government over a host of issues, notably  the  contested  oil rich  Kirkuk and  nearby mixed Arab-Kurdish areas, sharing of oil revenues  and open  display of  secessionist aspirations by some Kurds apparently  have led   to the restricted  role for the Kurdish militia in the Tikrit  offensive.   Baghdad  sees  in   militarily empowered  Kurds  an existential  threat to the country's territorial integrity and fears that a  Kurdish role  in evicting  the IS   would buttress its territorial  claims, albeit within the sovereignty of Iraq. 

Lastly, the Sunni contingent in the battle is little more than tokenism, to  place  a  non-sectarian façade. Sunni tribal leaders generally  had expressed a preference to fight the IS under US command rather than the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.  Sunnis' contribution  in Tikrit liberation  is  far below its weight and  indicates  the extent of the  trust deficit   between  the two sects  and underscores the  efforts needed to draw Sunnis into the mainstream  anti-IS campaign. 

The control of Tikrit paved the way for the  eventual  onward  Iraqi  campaign northward and westward to  liberate Mosul and Anbar respectively from  the IS. The  defeat of  the IS and ex-Baathists in Tikrit  by the Iraqi troops, helped  initially  by Iran  and later by  US albeit in  a mutually excluding  arrangement,  signifies a  modus vivendi of some sort between the two in Iraq. This further  seals  the geopolitical, strategic, political and sectarian changes wrought by the 2003 Iraq war, as an increasingly irreversible landmark event, though the  Shia-majority and  Iran- supported regime in Baghdad may not be   free from recurrent  challenges.

The role of Iran

The open role of Iran in Tikrit fighting can be seen in this light. The defeat of the IS in Tikrit in an Iran- directed offensive would have projected Tehran  as the saviour of Iraq,  particularly its majority Shias as also the region from  the monstrous IS. This would have led to consolidation of its strategic influence in  Iraq and directing  further onward campaign in Anbar and Mosul. However, the  IS' stubborn resistance, forcing the Iraqi govt to seek US air support, which  proved decisive in ending the battle, deprived Iran of such an aura. 

The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq

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