Iraqi army: Coalition-strikes needed to end Tikrit battle

Iraqi army: Coalition-strikes needed to end Tikrit battle
Iraqi officers call for US-led Coalition strikes on Tikrit to launch the final assault against IS fighters who remain in the city. Battle could last another two weeks, according to army estimates.
3 min read
15 March, 2015
The recapture of Tikrit will be a major morale boost to anti-IS forces (al-Araby al-Jadeed)

Coalition air strikes are needed to retake Tikrit, where Islamic State group (IS, formally Isis) fighters are defending their last redoubt with trenches, sandbags and roadside bombs, Iraqi officers said Sunday. 

Two weeks into Baghdad's biggest operation yet against the IS group, Iraqi forces have a complete stranglehold on the city, but are unable to launch a final assault, they said.

     IS is putting up sandbags and digging trenches.

- Iraqi officer

Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi said he had asked the defence ministry to request coalition involvement but "no air support" from foreign allies had yet been provided.

Asked if US-led coalition air strikes were needed, Saadi said: "Of course... the Americans have advanced equipment, they have AWACS (surveillance) aircraft.

"They are able to locate the targets exactly" and carry out accurate strikes, he told AFP in an interview at Tikrit University on the northern edge of the city.

"With the advanced technology of the aircraft and weapons they have, of course (strikes) by them are necessary," Saadi said.

Saadi said that support from the Iraqi air force had been "limited" and not always sufficiently accurate.

Fighters from the Imam Ali Brigade, a Shia militia involved in the Tikrit operation, complained to AFP that a Sukhoi jet had even bombed pro-government forces by mistake.

Since IS fighters took the city in June 2014, they have planted bombs underneath every road, according to residents who fled Tikrit.

One police officer gave an estimate of 10,000 IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Tikrit, making any military advance perilous.

"We are reinforcing our offensive capacities in the areas we have cleared and reinforcing our control on the entrances to the city," an army major general said Sunday.

"IS is putting up sandbags and digging trenches," he said.

Karim al-Nuri, spokesman of the volunteer Popular Mobilisation units, said on Saturday that he expected Tikrit to be liberated within 72 hours.

But the Iraqi army was less upbeat, with one senior officer saying he could envision the battle of Tikrit lasting two more weeks.

Iranian involvement

Saadi said he thought the reason there had been no coalition air strikes on Tikrit was political, not military.

Iran has been Baghdad's main foreign partner in the operation and Tehran's top commander in charge of external operations, Qassem Soleimani, has been omnipresent on the front lines.

Officials in Washington have expressed unease at the level of Iranian involvement in Tikrit, an city which was dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Coalition air strikes have supported several other operations to reclaim IS-held territory in Iraq in recent months, including some in which Iran-backed Shia militias were involved.

Iraqi security forces, backed by Shia volunteers and militias, and in some cases Sunni tribesmen opposed to IS, have in recent months been working their way north.

In October, they retook Jurf al-Sakhr, the southernmost area to have been captured by IS, and have since also reclaimed the eastern province of Diyala.

Iranian support was crucial in both those operations.

Kurdish peshmerga have also been pushing back IS fighters from northern parts of the country, with US-led coalition support.

The last remaining IS stronghold east of the Tigris river is Hawijah, a city northeast of Tikrit, where fleeing fighters are believed to have gathered and on which Kurdish forces are advancing.

Tikrit is seen by commanders as a key stepping stone on the way to reconquering IS's northern hub of Mosul, Iraq's second city.

The outcome of the battle seems in little doubt but there is more at stake for the government than just territorial gain.

The vast operation is seen as a test of Baghdad's ability to instil discipline in the array of fighting forces involved in the anti-IS war and prevent some of the abuses committed in past operations.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the offensive. Tikrit once had an estimated population of 200,000 but it is unclear how many civilians remain in the war-torn city.