Updates: March 8-13, 2015
- Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) that include Iraqi Shi’a militias, and anti-ISIS tribal forces continued their offensive to retake Salah al-Din province, advancing street-by-street into the provincial capital, Tikrit, which lies 87 miles northwest of Baghdad. Despite forcing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to retreat, much work remains in disarming the thousands of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) hidden throughout the city and clearing remaining ISIS holdouts.
- In a bid to break ISIS’ hold on Salah al-Din and the center of Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces initiated a multi-pronged assault on ISIS-held positions in and around Kirkuk. Current estimates place the Peshmerga within 13 miles of Hawija, an ISIS stronghold 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk.
- In a surprise attack, ISIS launched 21 suicide bombings and numerous mortar rounds that killed and wounded 40 people in Ramadi on Wednesday, March 11.
- The Government of Iraq (GOI) continues to face budget shortfalls due to low oil prices and ongoing military expenditures, creating challenges in paying government salaries and honoring other commitments, including Baghdad’s agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Also related to the financial crisis, there are growing complaints by provincial officials about the slow delivery of aid and lack of resources for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other vulnerable populations.
Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and associated militias are making gains in a major offensive to retake the city of Tikrit and the rest of Salah al-Din province from ISIS.
On March 8, Iraqi anti-ISIS forces began amassing outside of Tikrit in preparation for the raid of the city and the final push to clear Salah al-Din of ISIS. Aiming for a four-pronged assault on the city, Iraqi forces continued clearing operations on the outskirts of Tikrit, as more forces gathered. By the end of the day, Iraqi forces numbers grew to around 30,000 men. According to Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a congressional testimony, “Iraqi forces include 1,000 Sunni tribal forces, a brigade of 3,000 Iraqi troops, several hundred Iraqi military counterterrorism forces, and approximately 20,000 men that belong to the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces.” Turkmen communities also contributed an estimated 4,000 volunteers to the operation, many of whom were veterans of the operations in Amerli and Bayat.
On March 9, offensive operations began with a coordinated push to surround the city and cut off any escape routes for ISIS. Member of Parliament (MP) Badr al-Fahl reported that anti-ISIS forces had entered and begun clearance procedures in the neighborhood of Albu Aljeel, which lies to the east of Tikrit across the Tigris River. Although Iraqi forces reportedly faced little resistance, there are no reported numbers of casualties on either side. At the same time, units gathered around the city of al-Alam, which lies to the north of Tikrit, in a bid to cut off ISIS’ escape from the city.
On March 10, the siege for Tikrit officially began with anti-ISIS forces approaching from the Southern, Western, and Northern districts. Iraqi forces first entered the city from the south and quickly claimed the Tikrit Teaching Hospital, in the Shishen neighborhood, raising its flag as the first of many buildings to be returned to Iraqi control. The challenge of taking the city back from ISIS became apparent as Iraqi units came under attack from numerous IEDs, one taking the lives of 8 soldiers and wounding 12 others.
Clearance efforts continued unabated in Albu Aljeel for the day, as ISIS militants demolished the Route 24 Bridge, north of the Presidential Palace, over the Tigris River in order to delay the Eastern Iraqi advance. The importance of Albu Aljeel to anti-ISIS forces is underscored by its role as a supply line between ISIS strongholds in Salah al-Din. MP Badr al-Fahl praised the efforts of the Iraqi forces and reported “75% of al-Alam and Albu Aljeel have been taken from ISIS control.”
On March 11, the three-pronged advance was reduced to a crawl as military engineers cleared hundreds of IEDs from roadways, homes, and other avenues. Anti-ISIS forces eventually entered Tikrit from the north, after clearing Al-Alam of militants and returning control to its former mayor. Anonymous civilian sources on the ground reported that ISIS had nearly fully abandoned the city earlier in the week and kidnapped an estimated 275 people before they fled for Hawija. There have been no updates on their status.
On March 12, clearing operations expanded as anti-ISIS forces encountered both snipers and IEDs throughout the city. Although the center of Tikrit is under Iraqi control, several neighborhoods, specifically Qadisiyah in the northwest, remain under control of a few remaining pockets of ISIS militants. MP Badr al-Fahl congratulated Iraqi forces for their dedication and proclaimed that over 90% of the province was once again under Iraqi control. Al-Fahl also boasted that Shia PMUs had not engaged in any human rights violations, although it is still too early to accurately conclude.
Kurdish Peshmerga Forces Initiate Operations to Consolidate Control Around Kirkuk
On March 9, Kurdish Peshmerga forces began combat operations against ISIS, in a bid to regain territory and security around the city of Kirkuk. Backed by U.S. Coalition Air Forces, the Peshmerga advanced on the villages of Maktab Khaled, Dakouk, and Harabarut. The villages of Sultan Mari, Nahrawan, and Mullah Abdullah al-Kabir were quickly cleared and an estimated 40 militants were killed.
On March 10, Major Gen Omar Saleh Hassan announced that Peshmerga forces, in coordination with the U.S. Coalition Air Forces, seized over 38.6 square miles of territory from ISIS around Kirkuk and killed over 100 militants in the process. This operation, which served to secure Kirkuk’s border from encroaching militants after ISIS-led attacks in January, coincided with the assault on Tikrit. As a result, Peshmerga forces saw little resistance during their advance.
In an evening press conference on March 10, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced that Peshmerga forces had captured 15 villages in their ground offensive that started on Monday evening and are approaching ISIS’ stronghold in Hawija. Current positions place the Peshmerga within 12.4 miles at the minimum. Although an attack on Hawija is not currently planned, the seizure of the central road between Kirkuk and Mosul, oil wells, and the provincial power plant has caused significant damage to ISIS’ position in Salah al-Din province.
On March 12, Sardar Ahmed, an intelligence officer with the Kurdish Peshmerga, reported that the continuing offensive has seen several additional villages cleared between Nahrawan and Rashad. As the offensives end and control is returned to local officials, the KRG has sworn to “protect the lives and properties of those living to the South and West of Kirkuk.”
Ramadi Under Siege or Simply a Warning?
On Wednesday, March 11, ISIS militants launched a surprise attack on the city of Ramadi through a combination of suicide bombings and mortar attacks. Anonymous security sources within Ramadi reported that at least 40 civilians and policemen were killed and wounded in the attacks. It is the first major action taken by ISIS since the beginning of operations in Tikrit and Kirkuk this week. It is unclear if this will be a concerted push or if it was intended to be a distraction.
Domestic Tensions Highlighted over Stagnant International Aid
On March 8, Nawzad Hadi, the governor of Erbil, voiced concern over the rising humanitarian cost of the battle for Tikrit, as well as how the KRG will handle new waves of IDPs in the event of an operation to clear Mosul of ISIS control. The remarks came ahead of a visit by the Iraqi Human Rights Council of Canada to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). In a press statement, Mr. Hadi declared: “The problems of IDPs are borne firstly by local and provincial governments. In Erbil, alone, there are over 104,000 families from Mosul, Diyala, Anbar, and Salah al-Din. Furthermore, the most recent fighting in Tikrit has seen 25,000 families flee in the past few weeks.” The Governor called upon official bodies, organizations, and donor countries to start planning and fundraising to offset the eventual costs.
On March 9, the Ministry of the Peshmerga reported that the ministerial meetings between defense officials in Baghdad have been “positive”. Jabbar Yawar, Secretary General of the Ministry of the Peshmerga, announced that defense agreements had been confirmed for greater air support for Peshmerga forces and new committees would be formed to ensure proper payment to the Kurdish soldiers. This point is particularly important, as Yawar had long called for Baghdad to set aside funding for Kurdish forces and not deduct it from the KRG’s annual federal funding.
On March 11, Ismail al-Halob, deputy governor of Salah al-Din, made an appeal to the Supreme Council of the Displaced for immediate aid to offset the demands of the 14,000 refugee families in Samarra. In a public statement, al-Halob criticized the slow delivery of aid and demanded that the Supreme Council establish an operations office in the city to streamline support. As clearance operations continue in Tikrit and the surrounding villages, it is expected that mass displacement will continue.
On March 11, Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Minister of Finance, refuted reporters’ questions that Baghdad does not seek to support the KRG and promised that the KRG would receive its share of the 2015 national budget. In a press conference on the sidelines of the American University of Sulaimani’s annual forum, Zebari promised, “the Ministry of Finance will send another advance to the KRG” ahead of the official transfer of the 2015 budget funding. In response to claims that Baghdad withheld funds for political reasons, he stated, “comments about Baghdad’s lack of commitment to the agreement with Kurdistan oil export agreement is not true and Baghdad is committed to the agreement.” This recent defense comes after KRG President Barzani moved to pay Kurdish government officials with $500 million USD in Turkish loans in late February.