The operation to re-capture Tikrit, prosecuted by the ISF, Shi’a militias, and Sunni tribal forces, has begun with main efforts targeting two areas east of the city, Alam and Dour. Both are controlled by ISIS and represent positions from which ISIS may stage attacks into Diyala or Samarra, which are defensive priorities for the ISF. These ISF-aligned forces are proceeding toward Alam and Dour from two axes: one from the east and one from the south. Despite early reports about clashes on the northern outskirts of the city, it does not appear that Tikrit itself has yet been designated as a main effort for these forces. Clearing Alam and Dour appear to be their current priorities, from which these forces will likely launch further operations toward Tikrit after clearing the areas of ISIS.
The assault force from the east includes ISF elements under Dijla Operations Command, comprised of Iraqi Army and likely also Federal Police, fighting alongside Shi’a militias and Sunni tribal forces. This force moved first in two columns toward Alam and Nama, east of the Tigris. They reportedly cleared Nama on March 4. The forces that cleared Nama may either join in the fight to clear Alam or proceed to the next village, Albu Ajil, also under ISIS’s control. This tactical decision will indicate whether the Tikrit offensive, dominated by Shi’a militias, will spark a sectarian situation within Sunni majority Salah ad-Din. Alam is a rallying cry for Sunnis fighting ISIS. Sunnis in the area were among the first reported to resist ISIS’s control in 2014. Sunni tribal fighters are working to reclaim their homes in a battle for Alam alongside the ISF and Shi’a militias, a battle which bodes extremely well for future cross-sectarian operations. However, Albu Ajil village holds the opposite potential. Some within the ISF, Shi’a militias, and Sunni communities perceive that Sunni tribes from Albu Ajil were complicit in the 2014 execution by ISIS of hundreds of ISF personnel at COB Speicher. If the ISF, Shi’a militias, and Sunni tribal forces from the east instead move to clear Albu Ajil, it could generate sectarian reprisal attacks that cause these forces to fracture. Sectarianism in the heart of Salah ad-Din is therefore a valid concern posed by this Tikrit offensive, while Sunni infighting is also a possibility in the Albu Ajil case.
The greater question is one of Iran’s involvement in the operation. The presence of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qassim Suleimani raises larger concerns about how the war against ISIS in Iraq will proceed. It raises questions about the independent capability and operational leadership of the ISF, despite the fact that Iraqi leaders clearly wish to re-establish Iraq’s independent security. Iran’s involvement at Tikrit, preceded by numerous other operations to clear ISIS from northern Diyala, eastern Salah ad-Din, Jurf al-Sakhar, and Baiji, calls attention to next steps, and where Iran’s battle plans will stop. The ISF will need to develop a coherent strategy from what appear to be separate developing plans to clear ISIS from Salah ad-Din, Anbar, and Ninewa. The development of disconnected strategies for these areas does not bode well for a unified effort to defeat ISIS in Iraq. This highlights an important and timely opportunity for the US to assist Iraq in developing such a strategy ultimately to defeat ISIS by bolstering Iraq’s sovereignty.
ISW will continue to provide updates on the situation in Iraq as it unfolds. For continuous updates, visit iswiraq.blogspot.com.