TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Under Siege in Iraq
March 2, 2015

The Islamic State Under Siege in Iraq

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The Iraqi government has launched a military offensive to retake Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, from the Islamic State

• Lacking the capability to act unilaterally, the Iraqi army will depend on extensive participation by Shi’a militia, Kurdish peshmerga, and reportedly even Iranian air support

• Such a highly combustible mixture of fighting groups might prove militarily effective against the Islamic State but it also may tear the country apart in the process

• The battle for Tikrit and other towns in Salahuddin province will provide a mini-preview of what awaits further to the north in Mosul, a city of one million people currently under control of the Islamic State.

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With the launch of the Iraqi security campaign to liberate Salahuddin,” the next stage in the fight against the Islamic State has begun. In a March 1 statement, Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi offered the supporters of the terrorist group a “last chance” to throw down their arms or face the consequences of military attack—an ultimatum sure to be ignored. The manner in which the coming battles for the province unfold will not just affect the future of the Islamic State; it will also affect the future of Iraq as a country.

The Iraqi Army that put up very little fight last summer against the Islamic State has since improved, but not to the degree that it can take on the entrenched group by itself. Therefore, the campaign to retake Tikrit and other towns in the province will involve a highly combustible mixture of actors. This combination might prove militarily effective against the Islamic State but it also just might tear the country apart in the process.

Shi’a militia groups such as the Badr Organization, Kata’ib al-Ghadab of the Da’wa party, and Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda will play a large role in the fighting to retake the province from the extremist Sunni fighters of the Islamic State. These groups have a troubling history of sectarian violence and abuse that, if left unchecked, could provide the Islamic State with the sectarian war they desire above all else. Salahuddin is a Sunni-majority province in a Shi’a-majority country. This means there will be a short fuse before sectarian violence explodes, when towns such as Tikrit—the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein—are liberated by the much-feared and loathed Shi’a militias.

Adding to the mix are the Kurdish peshmerga units, along with reported Iranian advisors and air support. These groups will also play a large role in the coming fighting, which again presents serious concerns related to sectarian violence. Even the most die-hard Sunni opponents of the Islamic State will find themselves conflicted when Shi’a, Kurdish, and possibly Iranian units start shooting in their towns and villages. Prime Minister al-Abadi has publicly called for restraint by the various military forces under his overall command, and for the protection of civilians, but history suggests there will be sectarian reprisals. The Islamic State, for its part, will go out of its way to ensure as many Sunni casualties as possible in order to change the fight from one pitting Iraq against the Islamic State to one pitting Sunnis against Shi’a and Kurds.

Urban warfare is always complicated and horrific; the fighting in Salahuddin is likely to be no different. The 2004 U.S. military campaign to retake Fallujah from al-Qaeda in Iraq shows how difficult it is to remove an armed opponent from a city, and the combined Iraqi forces will have no where near the ability of the U.S effort a decade ago. The ongoing coalition airstrikes that have diminished the group since last fall have also denied it a chance to be seen fighting enemies such as Shi’a militia and the Iraqi army. The fight for Tikrit and other towns will provide the group the chance for a high-profile and high-visibility battle, even if it proves to be too costly for the group. While the Iraqi security forces will have superiority in terms of artillery, armor, and air support, they will be met with suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices when they enter the towns and villages.

The battle for Tikrit, which the Islamic State has held since last June, will provide a mini-preview of what lies ahead further to the north in Mosul. With a population over one million, Mosul is four times larger than Tikrit and is more important strategically for the Islamic State. The group might fight very hard for Tikrit, but it will fight to the death for Mosul, since the loss of Mosul would be the end of the Caliphate for all intents and purposes. Yet before that fight can begin, the fight for Tikrit and Salahuddin has to be won. If the fight remains Iraq vs. the Islamic State, the group will lose and be forced to fall back. If it turns into a full sectarian battle, Iraq as a country will lose.

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