July 7, 2014

The battle for Tikrit - bellwether of the future in Iraq?

The ongoing battle for control of the city of Tikrit between the forces of the newly-declared The Islamic State (TIS, formerly ISIS - the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria) and the Iraqi Army has implications far beyond who emerges as the victor of the fighting. It is a make or break battle for the discredited Iraqi Army and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Tikrit is a Sunni city of 250,000 people located on the Tigris River about 85 miles north of Baghdad. It is famous for being the hometown of former dictator Saddam Husayn, who lavished significant amounts of money and largesse on the city.

The city was taken with little opposition by the forces of ISIS soon after the fall of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, in mid-June. ISIS forces seemed to be rolling down the Tigris Valley on their way to Baghdad as Iraqi military and security forces collapsed and melted away.

ISIS forces soon made their way to the city of Ba'qubah, a mere 25 miles northeast of Baghdad, and were already in control of al-Fallujah in the infamous al-'Anbar province about 30 miles west of Baghdad. The Shi'a holy city of al-Samarra', south of Tikrit on the Tigris, was in danger of falling to ISIS.

As the Iraqi government withdrew most of its forces positioned in the Euphrates River valley west of Baghdad back to the city to defend the capital in case ISIS mounted an attack, it deployed forces north into the Tigris Valley to retake the city of Tikrit.

Tikrit is home to al-Sahra' Army Air Base, formerly called COB Speicher by the Americans. It is also home to a university and two civilian airports. The military air base has been the scene of an intense ongoing battle between TIS fighters and the Iraqi Army. Based on the reports from the TIS fighters (they are avid Twitter "tweeters"), they have been somewhat successful in taking the Air Force College portion of the base (circled in red on the map on the airbase).

It does not appear that TIS forces are taking prisoners, preferring to kill any Iraqi military personnel they come across. They believe most of them to be of the Shi'a sect, and thus apostates who deserve to die. Fighting also continues in the university area and in the city itself.

Tikrit is not the only venue for fierce fighting between the Army and the Islamists. Here is a map of the rest of the combat area.

The Islamist forces seem to be moving both east and west in the Euphrates Valley from their stronghold in al-Falujah, consolidating their hold on al-Ramadi to the west - they have already taken the border crossing at al-Qa'im and the strategic crossroads of al-Rutbah which controls the highways to the Jordanian border crossing at al-Turaybil and the Syrian border crossing at al-Walid.

Complementing the move to the border crossing at al-Qa'im is an effort by TIS forces in Syria to replace the al-Qa'idah affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (Victory Front) as the primary force in the Dayr al-Zawr to Albu Kamal corridor on the Euphrates River. When the two elements meet up, TIS will control a large portion of the Euphrates Valley from the Turkish-Syrian border to the outskirts of Baghdad.

Surprisingly, the TIS fighters are also pushing up the Diyala River valley towards the Khanaqin reservoir, an important hydroelectric power production and oil field area. By doing so, it is approaching the Kurdish autonomous area. I would be surprised if the Islamists want to start a fight with the Kurds at this point in time.

Of real concern is the movement of TIS forces from al-Fallujah to the east, towards the cities of al-Khalidiyah and Abu Ghurayb - these are on the road to Baghdad International Airport. The Baghdad airport is the base of operations for hundreds of recently-deployed U.S. forces. (See my analysis, Baghdad International Airport - the Achilles heel of the American evacuation plan.)

Tikrit is the bellwether for how this whole situation may unfold. As I have said in the past, "If the Iraqi Army of 250,000 soldiers organized into 14 divisions, equipped with tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery and helicopter gunships cannot dislodge a force of maybe 10,000 Islamist irregulars, we are about to have a major foreign policy disaster on our hands." (See my analysis, Iraq - Sobering assessment from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

Watch what happens in Tikrit. If the forces of The Islamic State are able to push the Iraqi Army back towards al-Samarra' and Baghdad, the failed state of Iraq may not recover in its current form. We should prepare for the dissolution of the country and the presence of a radical Islamist state between Aleppo and Baghdad.