Iraqi forces have retreated to a neighboring town as a push to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Sunni militants has failed, according to BBC News.
Saturday’s offensive was the latest move against the rebels, part of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as the government attempts to drive them out of Tikrit, a Sunni stronghold that was the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
The government’s forces did not fare much better on Sunday, as “at least two army helicopters were damaged by insurgents as they transported troops to the” University of Tikrit campus in the northern part of the city, according to residents who spoke to the Los Angeles Times.
Times reporter Shashank Bengali also cited U.S. concerns about the offensive:
American officials are urging Iraqi security forces not to rush into attempting to retake cities, which would risk bogging the army down in dangerous urban warfare against well-armed insurgents just as U.S. forces were a decade ago. Without such a push, however, analysts believe the insurgents are consolidating their hold on territory they control and plotting ways to strike Baghdad.
CNN also quoted a woman in Tikrit as saying that “there are no Iraqi troops here,” casting further doubt on the government’s claims and prospects of retaking the city.
And in a separate development, ISIS announced that it was now “The Islamic State,” or IS, dropping any geographic specificity from its name and declaring the establishment of a caliphate.
Earlier reports indicated heavy fighting around the University of Tikrit campus in the Qadissiyah district, a northern part of the city, as well as other areas to the south. The BBC also reported “clashes around an air base formerly used by the US military, Camp Speicher.”
As night fell, however, it became increasingly clear that the latest effort was running into strong insurgent resistance. But conflicting reports from the country made it difficult to assess the reality of the situation.
Civilians in the city told the Washington Post that the militants “had repelled the troops’ advance, rigging roads into the city with explosives,” while state media told a different tale: the rebels were being effectively cleared from Tikrit.
There is, as the Post, notes, significant incentive for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to succeed in Tikrit, or at least appear to succeed. Maliki has been blamed for the sectarian divisions that gave rise to ISIS and could find himself out of power by the end of the week, as leaders gather to choose a new prime minister in the wake of spring elections.
The rebels have a notable disadvantage in terms of numbers, but that discontent among the Sunni population has helped perpetuate its strengths. In a related story, The Daily Beast pointed to “myth-making” ability as a crucial part of its recent success, saying that “every surrender [of government troops] mov[ed] the myth of ISIS’s strength closer to reality.”
That in turn has enhanced the militants’ numbers and ability to fight Baghdad:
Testimony of police and local sources who witnessed the fall of Tikrit, reveals ISIS was far weaker than previously believed when they swept through the region as Iraqi Security Forces were on the verge of collapse before the offensive began. However, with the momentum of these past two weeks, the augmentation of ISIS by local fighters and prisoners released from anti-terrorism prisons, and the spoils gained from the remains of 7 collapsed Iraqi Army divisions what was once a far less substantial ISIS force is now a formidable conventional army. The ISIS force Baghdad now faces is far stronger than the one it failed to confront only weeks ago.
Separately, Iraq acknowledged Saturday that it had received aging Sukhoi-25 fighter jets from Russia. The Maliki government has been pressing for aid from the United States but has been frustrated by the Obama administration’s reluctance to wade back into what could become another Iraqi quagmire.
But the crisis there is largely one of a political nature and it’s widely believed that absent a compromise appeasing the disaffected groups – namely, Sunnis and Kurds – the violence will continue, along with the threat posed by the Islamic State.
That is why, according to Reuters, Iraqi politicians have been “racing against time” ahead of Tuesday’s deadline to fill government posts, motivated by fears that an insurgent advance on Baghdad could be imminent.
But the news agency also reports that the militants took down a government helicopter on Sunday.
Should the offensive in Tikrit fail, as seems increasingly possible despite government rhetoric, it would only heighten Baghdad’s fears – and almost certainly mean a new prime minister for Iraq.
[photo: Scrape TV]