TIME Iraq

Iraqi Troops and Shi‘ite Militias Have Retaken Large Areas of Tikrit From ISIS

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Ahmad al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images Iraqi soldiers raise their weapons as they cheer on the outskirts of the city of Tikrit as they prepare to launch a military operation to take control of the city from ISIS on March 10, 2015.

The operation was the Iraqi government's largest to date in the fight against ISIS

After a week of intense fighting, Iraqi and Shi‘ite forces have retaken major parts of Tikrit — a strategically vital city in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle — from ISIS. Iranian military officials were also reportedly involved in the city’s recapture.

The battle, involving over 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and allied Shi‘ite militia, was the largest government operation to date and may be a prelude to recapturing Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control, the New York Times reports.

The U.S. was notably absent in direct military offensives in Tikrit, with some officials articulating unease about the central role of Shi‘ite militias and the Iranians in the recapture of Tikrit.

The Iraqi Prime Minister’s spokesperson Rafid Jaboori told the New York Times that the U.S., along with Kurdish forces, would play “a significant role” in retaking Mosul, adding that the U.S. and Iran shared an overarching objective of crushing ISIS.

Meanwhile, in northern Syria, U.S. air strikes have enabled Kurdish forces to reclaim dozens of ISIS-controlled villages, the U.S. Central Command reported.

[NY Times]

Read next: Why the Fight Against ISIS Has to Go Through the Cities

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TIME Military

Why the Fight Against ISIS Has to Go Through the Cities

Operation against Daesh militants in Iraq's Tikrit
Ali Mohammed / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Clashes between Iraqi forces and ISIS sent smoke billowing into the skies over Tikrit on Monday.

Iraqi forces reportedly move into Tikrit after more than a week of fighting

Urban warfare is the only way the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria will be defeated. That’s because while it occupies a wide desert swath of those two nations, it’s holed up in its cities. In part, that’s to shield the Islamic militants from attack, but it’s also because the rest of the land they occupy is barren and desolate.

The 10-day battle now underway for Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown 80 miles north of Baghad, is simply the first domino in a row of cities that must fall if ISIS is to be beaten. Iraqi forces and their Iranian-led Shi’ite militia allies moved a step closer Tuesday as they reportedly drove ISIS fighters from large parts of the city amid indications that many militants were in retreat.

If the Iraqi government succeeds in retaking Tikrit, it will push on toward other critical towns like ISIS-occupied Fallujah. The most important domino is Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the base from which ISIS controls northern Iraq.

“If you look at the area that is claimed right now by ISIS as a sort of block of territory that it controls, actually it’s not a continuous area; it’s a network of cities and the links, the roads, the rivers and trails between those cities that connect them,” guerrilla warfare guru David Kilcullen told Australian television Tuesday. “Inevitably, as we get into a ground war against ISIS, it’s going to play out in these urban centers which really are the basis for ISIS’s power in Iraq and also in Syria.”

The Pentagon is debating whether or not to ask President Obama to send reinforcements to bolster the 3,000 U.S. troops already on Iraqi soil to accompany front-line Iraqi units in the fight for Mosul. While U.S. troops have been training Iraqi forces and conducting air strikes, Obama has barred them from the front lines, where they could act as spotters for those air strikes and garner intelligence.

Some 14,000 U.S. troops fought to drive Sunni militants out of Fallujah in late 2004. “I am sorry that some of you may have to go back,” Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told General Joseph Dunford, the Marine commandant, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “The only commitment I will make, as a senator from South Carolina, is that if you go back, you go back to win and that we get this right this time.”

Urban warfare requires the attacker to clear his enemy room by room, building by building, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood—and then secure the cleared areas to ensure the enemy doesn’t return. City combat blunts the attackers’ advantages. “Urban canyons” offers hideouts for foes and civilians, as well as sniper nests and underground lairs from which combatants can strike. Buildings create vast “dead spaces” for an enemy to exploit. They hinder communication and mobility. Overhead wires can bring down choppers and drones.

ISIS is well aware of those advantages. “This is not an enemy that is sitting around in the open desert waiting for me to come find it and either use U.S. or French aircraft to attack it,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Sunday while aboard a French aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. “They did some of that in the beginning and paid the price. So the enemy has adapted and they have developed tactics and techniques that make them a little more difficult to find.”

In other words, they’re hiding in the cities. Attackers in urban environments, for example, can’t survey the entire battlefield and instead see only bits and pieces; it’s like playing chess while viewing only four squares on the board. This battlefield compression means that low-ranking fighters must often make life-and-death decisions.

These choices come fast and furious when you’re fighting downtown: historically, 90% of the targets are less than 50 yards away and seen for only seconds. Killing innocent civilians—or your own men—is a risk that goes with the terrain. A quarter of all explosive rounds turn into duds when they glance off walls and roofs. About one of every three street-fighting combatants ends up as a casualty. It takes a minimum of three attackers to root out a single foe dug into a city; the Pentagon prefers a ratio of 10-to-1.

The Baghdad military’s lack of city-fighting skills could lead to drawn-out bloodbaths, where ISIS fighters booby-trap buildings and set up kill zones for advancing Iraqi troops. “Iraqi security forces are not terribly proficient in urban warfare,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Charlie Rose Mar. 3.

Ancient Muslim sectarian strife also makes the fight for Tikrit and other ISIS-held Iraqi cities challenging. The fact that Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are leading some of the units attacking the city could make retaking it and others more difficult. The militias are allied with the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government. But both ISIS and most residents of the Iraqi territory it occupies are Sunnis. That could make the residents reluctant to join forces with their Shi’ite liberators, as well as keep them from abandoning their co-religionists.

The kind of urban warfare facing the Iraqi forces “is very, very different, very complex, requires a great deal of skill, great deal of precision to be successful,” Marine Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned Congress recently.

Ultimately, Iraqi forces could opt for patience. They could cordon off a city with a porous ring of tanks and armored vehicles. That would let civilians flee while keeping ISIS reinforcements and supplies out. Pressure could be ratcheted up by shutting off water and power.

One way or another, with enough fighters, weapons, time and will, the attackers generally prevail. The real challenge is making sure time and will are on your side before advancing into the city.

TIME conflict

ISIS Targets Archaeological Sites in Iraq and Syria

An Iraqi worker stands next to the ancient statue of a winged bull with a human face, an indication of strength in the Assyrian civilization, at the archaeological site of Nimrud, south of Mosul in northern Iraq, April 21, 2001.
Karim Sahib—AFP/Getty Images The ancient statue of a winged bull with a human face, an indication of strength in the Assyrian civilization, at the archaeological site of Nimrud, south of Mosul in northern Iraq, April 21, 2001.

Militants are also believed to be selling ancient artifacts on the black market

(BEIRUT) — The Islamic State group’s destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud in northern Iraq is part of a systematic campaign to destroy archaeological sites it says promote apostasy.

Some of the world’s most precious cultural treasures, including ancient sites in the cradle of civilization, are in areas controlled by the group and at the mercy of extremists bent on wiping out all non-Islamic culture and history.

The rampage, targeting priceless cultural artifacts often spanning thousands of years, has sparked global outrage and accusations of war crimes. The militants are also believed to be selling ancient artifacts on the black market in order to finance their bloody campaign across the region.

Here’s a look at some of the major sites destroyed by IS in Iraq and Syria, and others under their control:

IRAQ

The region under IS control in Iraq has nearly 1,800 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites. Among the most important sites under the militants’ control are four ancient cities — Ninevah, Kalhu, Dur Sharrukin and Ashur — which were at different times the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire.

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NIMRUD: Nimrud was the second capital of Assyria, an ancient kingdom that began around 900 B.C., partially in present-day Iraq, and became a great regional power. The city, which was destroyed in 612 B.C., is located on the Tigris River just south of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which was captured by the IS group in June. The late 1980s discovery of treasures in Nimrud’s royal tombs was one of the 20th century’s most significant archaeological finds. The government said militants destroyed the site this week using heavy military vehicles, but has not elaborated on the extent of the damage.

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MOSUL MUSEUM: On Feb. 26, a video emerged on militant websites showing Islamic State militants with sledgehammers destroying ancient artifacts at the museum in Mosul which they referred to as idols. They also destroyed Nirgal Gate, one of several gates to Ninevah, the onetime capital of the Assyrian Empire.

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MOSUL LIBRARIES: In January, Islamic State militants ransacked the Central Library of Mosul, smashing the locks and taking around 2,000 books — leaving only Islamic texts. Days later, militants broke into the University of Mosul’s library. They made a bonfire out of hundreds of books on science and culture, destroying them in front of students.

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SHRINES: Last year, militants destroyed the centuries-old Mosque of the Prophet Younis — believed to be the burial place of the Prophet Jonah — and the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis, two revered ancient shrines in Mosul. They also threatened to destroy Mosul’s 850-year old Crooked Minaret, but residents surrounded the structure to protect it.

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HATRA: The militants control the 2,300-year-old city of Hatra, a well preserved complex of temples south of Mosul and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Experts say large statues from Hatra have been destroyed or defaced.

SYRIA

The Islamic State group has overrun most of the east and large parts of the north, putting a string of major archaeological sites in their hands. The militants have pillaged sites, excavated others and have destroyed several relics and Assyrian-era statues as part of their purge of paganism. The destruction they have wreaked adds to the wider, extensive damage done to ancient sites including Palmyra, as well as mosques and churches across the country in the chaos of the civil war.

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DURA EUROPOS: The 2,300-year-old city overlooking the Euphrates River is a remarkably well-preserved cultural crossroads, a city first founded by Alexander the Great’s successors and later ruled by the Romans and various Persian empires. It boasts pagan temples, churches and one of the earliest known Jewish synagogues. Satellite imagery taken last year show the site pockmarked with holes from pillaging and illegal digs. It also showed hundreds of people conducting illegal excavations.

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MARI: An ancient city located on the site of Tell Hariri on the western bank of the Euphrates River in Deir el-Zour province. It is believed to have been inhabited since the 5th millennium B.C. and was discovered in the early 1930s. It has also been severely looted by IS.

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TEL AJAJI AND TELL BRAK: Prehistoric settlement mounds in Syria’s far eastern Hassakeh province. Experts say both have been looted and destroyed, Artifacts have been removed from both sites, and ancient statues — some dating back to the Assyrian period — have been smashed.

TIME Iraq

Iraq Says ISIS Militants ‘Bulldozed’ Ancient Site

Carved stones at Nimrud in Hatra, Iraq.
David Lees—Corbis Carved stones at Nimrud in Hatra, Iraq.

(BAGHDAD) — Islamic State militants “bulldozed” the ancient Nimrud archaeological site near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Thursday using heavy military vehicles, the government said.

A statement from Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities didn’t elaborate on the extent of the damage, saying only that the group continues to “defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity” with this latest act.

Nimrud is a 13th century B.C. Assyrian archaeological site located on the Tigris River just south of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State group in June. The extremists, who control a third of Iraq and Syria, have attacked other archaeological and religious sites, claiming that they promote apostasy.

Earlier this week a video emerged on militant websites showing Islamic State militants with sledgehammers destroying ancient artifacts at the Mosul museum, sparking global outrage.

Last year, the militants destroyed the Mosque of the Prophet Younis — or Jonah — and the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis, two revered ancient shrines in Mosul. They also threatened to destroy Mosul’s 850-year old Crooked Minaret, but local residents surrounded the structure, preventing the militants from approaching.

Iraq’s national museum in Baghdad opened its doors to the public last week for the first time in 12 years in a move Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said was to defy efforts “to destroy the heritage of mankind and Iraq’s civilization.”

The Islamic State group has imposed a harsh and violent version of Islamic law in the territories it controls and has terrorized religious minorities. It has released gruesome videos online showing the beheading of captives, including captured Western journalists and aid workers.

A U.S.-led coalition has been striking the group since August, and Iraqi forces launched an offensive this week to try to retake the militant-held city of Tikrit, on the main road linking Baghdad to Mosul.

TIME Iraq

Turkey PM Warns That Assault on ISIS in Tikrit Could Ignite Sectarian Tensions

Shi’ite fighters launch a rocket towards ISIS militants during heavy fighting in Salahuddin province, Iraq, March 4, 2015.
Mahmoud Raouf—Reuters Shi’ite fighters launch a rocket towards ISIS militants during heavy fighting in Salahuddin province, Iraq, March 4, 2015.

Warnings that a defeat for ISIS could lead to bloody Sunni-Shi'ite warfare in Iraq

By sending Shi’ite militias and Iranian forces to battle ISIS in Tikrit, Iraq risks stoking the sectarian divide that nourishes the extremist group. So warns Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“If Daesh is a big threat in Iraq, another threat is Shi’ite militias,” Davutoglu told TIME in a Wednesday interview, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria by its Arabic initials. “This is very important. If Daesh evacuates Tikrit or Mosul and if Shi’ite militias come in, then there will be sectarian war. Therefore all these cities, Sunni populated areas, should be liberated by the inhabitants of those cities.”

Davutoglu’s warning raises the question of whether Iraq’s leadership has changed as much as U.S. officials hope. ISIS swept up the city of Fallujah last spring, and Mosul, Tikrit and other Sunni regions in June, in part by offering itself as protector of a minority Sunni population that had been excluded and even persecuted by the central government in Baghdad, which is dominated by autocrats who have overtly favored the country’s Shi’ite majority. Iraq’s corrupt and poorly led military, also dominated by Shi’ites, fled the battlefield en masse as ISIS advanced last summer, while many Sunni tribes essentially welcomed ISIS. The first major stand government troops made was at Samarra, home of a major religious shrine revered by Shi’ites.

The offensive on Tikrit, which began just days ago, is the first major counterattack aimed at ISIS, and observers are concerned that two-thirds of the force of 30,000 attackers are Shi’ite militia. They are backed by Iranian warplanes, artillery, rockets and advisors, including Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who was photographed near the front line on Wednesday, drinking tea with beaming members of the Badr Brigades—a militia trained and equipped by Iran. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things,” Joint Chiefs of Staff chair General Dempsey, told a Senate committee on Tuesday, noting that U.S. warplanes are playing no role in the Tikrit assault. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

It’s a big if. Turkey’s Davutoglu notes there is scant evidence of the local Sunnis who are supposedly being trained for a later assault on Mosul, the Iraqi government having promoted legislation that allows Sunnis to form “national guard” units that amount to militias of their own. “[The Sunni guards] should have a role,” the Turkish premier said. “In Iraq the government passed a new law forming national guards. But unfortunately now Shiite militias form national guards, while Sunnis in Anbar or in Tikrit and in Mosul, they were not allowed to. For us, Sunnis and Shiites are our brothers, we don’t make any difference. But we don’t want to see another wave of sectarian war.”

Davutoglu said he voiced the warning to Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi in a conversation 10 days earlier. Al-Abadi has cast himself as a more moderate and inclusive Shi’ite leader than the highly sectarian premier he replaced, Nour al-Maliki. But the country remains sharply divided on ethnic and sectarian lines: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the west, and Shi’ites everywhere else. The danger is of a wholesale sectarian blood-letting like the civil war that left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007, when U.S. troops were still in the country. ISIS, with its extremist Sunni orientation, is both a product and an agent of the strife, having slaughtered thousands of Shi’ites during its summer blitzkrieg, including more than 1,000 recruits at a military base outside Tikrit in June. The men were lined up, made to lie in freshly dug trenches, and executed on camera.

Human rights group warn that Shi’ite militias are already exacting revenge, burning down buildings and carrying out extrajudicial killings in Sunni areas taken back from ISIS. “The day of judgment is coming,” Badr Brigades commander Hadi al-Ameri (who was transport minister under al-Maliki) warned residents of the Diyala Province town of Muqdadiyaa on Dec. 29. “We will attack the area until nothing is left. Is my message clear?” Clear enough. The question is whether anyone beyond Iraq was listening.

 

TIME Iraq

ISIS Set Fire to Oil Fields Near Tikrit

Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants in Salahuddin province, March 1, 2015.
Ahmed Al-Hussaini—Reuters Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket during clashes with ISIS militants in Salahuddin province, March 1, 2015.

Iraqi soldiers and Shia militia have surrounded the ISIS-held city

Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) set fire to the Ajil oil wells in east of the city of Tikrit in hopes of stopping aerial attacks that would drive them out of the oilfield, witnesses tell Reuters.

The oil field used to produce about 25,000 barrels per day of crude oil before ISIS took it over in June.

Shi’ite militia and Iraqi soldiers began moving through Ajil Monday in an assault on ISIS-held Tikrit. Security sources told BBC that the forces surrounding the city from the east, south and north have captured villages and oil fields east of the city, but that ISIS was fighting back with suicide bombers and snipers.

[Reuters]

TIME Military

Concern Over Iran’s Nukes Drowns Out Its Growing Role in Iraq

Tehran helps Baghdad try to retake Tikrit as U.S. watches

Consternation over Iran boiled Tuesday on Capitol Hill as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Tehran’s push for nuclear weapons “could well threaten the survival of my country.” But over at the Pentagon, the Iran focus wasn’t on Netanyahu but Iraq. That’s because Iran is playing a key role in Baghdad’s fight to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, while the U.S. is confined to the sidelines.

After the U.S. invested $26 billion rebuilding the Iraqi army over the past decade, some Pentagon officials found it disconcerting to see Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias leading the charge into Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The Iranians, of course, are relishing the opportunity: Hussein was running Iraq when it launched the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in a stalemate in 1988 with roughly 200,000 killed on each side.

American concern is justified: having Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces storm largely-Sunni Tikrit risks turning the conflict against the Sunni ISIS forces into a sectarian conflict that could balloon into a civil war. “It’s absolutely key that [the Iraqi government] make sure that they have provisions in place to accommodate the Sunnis,” Army General Lloyd Austin, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday. “That lack of inclusion is what got us to this point, and I think the only way that we can ensure that we don’t go back there is if we have the right steps taken by the government.” Fewer than 1,000 of the 30,000 fighters battling ISIS for Tikrit are Sunni tribal fighters, according to Iraqi estimates.

The populations of both Iran and Iraq are primarily Shi’ite. Since Saddam’s hanging in 2006, the Sunnis of western Iraq have been treated poorly by the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. Many Sunnis welcomed ISIS’s move into the region last year, when it killed more than 1,000 Iraqi Shi’ite troops who had been stationed at a base known, when the Americans were there, as Camp Speicher. Some of the Shi’ites attacking Tikrit are bent on revenge for the slaughter, which could exacerbate intra-Muslim tensions.

Iran, according to reports from the front and Pentagon officials, is backing Iraqi forces with air power, artillery fire and advisers guiding Shi’ite militiamen, who account for perhaps 10,000 of the fighters trying to retake Tikrit. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee later Tuesday. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. — which has conducted thousands of air strikes against ISIS targets since August — has been grounded in the battle to retake Tikrit. The daily U.S. tally of air strikes launched Wednesday ticked off targets around al Asad, Bayji, Mosul, Ramadi and Sinjar. But there were no strikes in or around Tikrit, although U.S. drones are keeping a nervous eye on the fighting (“We have good overhead imagery,” is how Austin put it).

Iran has reportedly dispatched commanders notorious for their killings of Sunnis to the fight. That may lead Tikritis to view those seeking to free their city from ISIS’s grip not as rescuers but as bloody vengeance-seekers.

As the U.S. and Israel work to keep Iran’s nuclear genie bottled up, both Washington and Tehran have said they are not operating together inside Iraq. “We don’t coordinate with them,” Austin, whose command oversees U.S. military forces inside the country, repeated Tuesday.

In other words, they’re allied, but not allies. “The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America,” Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday. “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam … They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.”

TIME Military

A Mosul Preview: Iraq Government Launches Attack on Tikrit

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Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images A member of the Iraqi antiterrorism forces waves the national flag in celebration after securing a checkpoint from Sunni militants in the village of Badriyah, west of the Iraqi city of Mosul, on Aug. 19, 2014

A force of 30,000 Sunni and Shi‘ite fighters, both soldiers and militia, launched a large-scale offensive Monday to push the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria out of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

Eighty miles northwest of Baghdad, Tikrit could serve as a model for the coming — and much bigger — battle to retake Mosul. ISIS seized Iraq’s second largest city, as well as Tikrit, last summer in a humiliating defeat for the U.S.-trained Iraqi forces.

General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the local Iraqi military commander, told Iraqi state television that the assault was “going on as planned,” primarily from the east. Iraqi warplanes were attacking targets in and around Tikrit, Iraqi TV added. A Pentagon spokesman said that while the U.S. government had received prior notice of the attack, no U.S. warplanes are involved. He also declined to comment on reports that Iranian forces are playing a role.

Pentagon officials said the Iraqi army’s success in retaking Tikrit is vital if the planned assault on Mosul is to remain on track. In recent months, the timetable for launching that counteroffensive has ranged from next month to next year, according to U.S. military officials.

Mosul is ISIS’s key Iraqi redoubt, and so long as it controls the city it will hold sway over much of northern Iraq. Tikrit, three hours south of Mosul on Iraq’s Route 1, is an important transit hub between Baghdad and Mosul. It would give the central government an important logistical hub from which to fuel its Mosul offensive.

Iraqi forces have failed in previous efforts to retake Tikrit. But Monday’s offensive comes after Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited Iraqi forces on the eve of the operation and said “zero hour” for taking back Tikrit had arrived.

He addressed the Iraqi people in a televised address Monday. “Today, God willing, we start an important military campaign to liberate the citizens of Salahuddin province which includes Samarra, Dhuluiya, Balad, Dujail, al-Alam, al-Door, and Tikrit and other areas in the province from ISIS,” al-Abadi said. “Our goal is to liberate people from the oppression and terrorism of Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Western Iraq’s population largely belongs to the Sunni Muslim sect, as does ISIS. The prior, Shi‘ite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, angered Sunnis with its oppressive governance that sidelined Sunnis. It is not clear whether or not the more inclusive approach of al-Abadi, also a Shi‘ite, since taking office in September has succeeded in easing those wounds.

On Feb. 19, a senior official at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, which oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq, told reporters that U.S. officials hoped an Iraqi-led attack on Mosul could begin as soon as April. “But by the same token, if they’re not ready, if the conditions are not set, if all the equipment that they need is not physically there and they are [not] trained to a degree in which they will be successful, we have not closed the door on continuing to slide that to the right” further into the future, the Central Command official said.

Despite that caveat, some U.S. military officials have derided any suggestion that the Iraqi military would be sufficiently trained and outfitted to storm Mosul as soon as April.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said last Friday that it still might happen. “This is going to be and must be an Iraqi-led operation, and that more critically, we’re not going to be able to go, nor do we want to go any faster than the Iraqis are ready to go,” he said. “I just can’t put a date certain on there and say it’s going to happen at a certain time, nor am I prepared to, you know, rule something out and tell you definitively, ‘Well, April’s out.’”

TIME

Iraq Begins Assault on ISIS North of Baghdad

Members of the Iraqi security forces coming from the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, drive towards al-Dawr area located south of Tikrit to launch an assault against the Islamic State group on Feb. 28, 2015.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images Members of the Iraqi security forces coming from the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, drive towards al-Dawr area located south of Tikrit to launch an assault against the Islamic State group on Feb. 28, 2015.

Tikrit, the provincial capital for Salauhddin province, fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer

(BAGHDAD) — Backed by allied Shiite and Sunni fighters, Iraqi security forces on Monday began a large-scale military operation to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the Islamic State extremist group, state TV said, a major step in a campaign to reclaim a large swath of territory in northern Iraq controlled by the militants.

But hours into the operation, a key test for the embattled Iraqi army, the military said it still hadn’t entered the city of Tikrit, indicating a long battle lies ahead.

Tikrit, the provincial capital for Salauhddin province, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer along with the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland after the collapse of national security forces. Tikrit is one of the largest cities held by IS forces and sits on the road to Mosul.

Security forces have so far been unable to retake Tikrit, but momentum has begun to shift since soldiers, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition, took back the nearby refinery town of Beiji in November. Any operation to take Mosul would require Iraq to seize Tikrit first because of its strategic location for military enforcements.

U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But they have cautioned that if the Iraqis aren’t ready, the timing could be delayed.

Past attempts to retake Tikrit have failed, and Iraqi authorities say they have not set a date to launch a major operation to recapture Mosul. Heavy fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish forces is taking place only outside the city.

Al-Iraqiya television said that the forces were attacking Tikrit from different directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets. It said the militants were dislodged from some areas outside the city. Several hours into the operation, it gave no details.

The military commander of Salahuddin region, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, told the state TV the operation was “going on as planned,” with fighting taking place outside Tikrit mainly on its eastern side.

“Until this moment we have not entered the city,” al-Saadi said. “God willing, we will enter, but we need some time as planned,” he said, adding that there is no timeframe for the operations.

“God willing, victory will be achieved and Salahuddin will be turned into a grave for all terrorist groups,” he said.

Tikrit is an important test case for Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which is trying to reassert authority over the divided country. Islamic State fighters have a strong presence in the city and are expected to put up fierce resistance.

Iraq is bitterly split between minority Sunnis, who were an important base of support for Saddam, and the Shiite majority. Since Saddam was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Sunni minority has felt increasingly marginalized by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and in 2006 long-running tensions boiled over into sectarian violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

While the TV said Shiite and Sunni tribal fighters were cooperating in Monday’s offensive, Tikrit is an important Sunni stronghold, and the presence of Shiite forces risks could prompt a backlash among Sunnis. The Iraqi military is heavily dependent on Shiite militias that have been accused of abusing Sunni communities elsewhere in Iraq.

Hours ahead of the operation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State extremist group, offering what he described as “the last chance” and promising them a pardon.

“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” al-Abadi said Sunday during a news conference in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad.

Al-Abadi offered what he called “the last chance” for Sunni tribal fighters, promising them a pardon. “The city will soon return to its people,” he added.

His comments appeared to be targeting former members of Iraq’s outlawed Baath party, loyalists to Saddam, who joined the Islamic State group during its offensive, as well as other Sunnis who were dissatisfied with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government.

Saddam, whose Sunni-dominated government ruled the country for some two decades, was executed after his ouster. Tikrit frequently saw attacks on U.S. forces during the American occupation of the country.

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Museum Looted During War Reopens in Baghdad

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visits the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad
Reuters Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, right, visits the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad Feb. 28, 2015.

The re-opening was brought forward as a response to the destruction of art by ISIS in Mosul

Iraq’s national museum has reopened, some twelve years after being looted during the U.S. military operations in Baghdad.

The museum, which places back on display priceless artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia, was intentionally re-opened ahead of schedule, the BBC reports, as a response to the recent destruction by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria of sculptures at a museum in Mosul, Iraq.

“Those barbaric, criminal terrorists are trying to destroy the heritage of mankind and Iraq’s civilization,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

One-third of the 15,000 items stolen from the National Museum of Iraq during the Iraq War have reportedly been recovered.

[BBC]

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