Iraqi drive on Tikrit falters amid fierce resistance from Islamic State

Iraqi forces pushed north Tuesday in an attempt to recapture the central Iraq town of Tikrit from the Islamic militants who have been occupying it since mid-June, only to see the assault stymied by snipers, roadside bombs and fierce resistance from the rebels.

By midday, the Iraq army units were bogged down at least six miles from the entrance to the city and appeared to be withdrawing south toward the government-held city of Samara, according to local residents and Kurdish security officials. In a statement to local television, the Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassem Atta, said that the army had dismantled at least 40 roadside bombs but declined to elaborate on the stalled advance.

The surprising move to retake Tikrit, 110 miles north of Baghdad and symbolically important as the former hometown of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, came just a day after a combined force of Iraqi special forces and peshmerga fighters from the autonomous Kurdish region – backed by heavy U.S. air support – retook the Mosul Dam, a crucial facility that supplies agricultural water and hydroelectricity to much of northern Iraq. The offensive to retake the dam, which also forced Islamic State fighters from a series of small villages in the surrounding areas, was the first significant military success for the Iraqi government since militants swept through northern and central Iraq in mid-June.

The Islamic State also Tuesday posted a video on YouTube of the purported beheading of a captive American photojournalist, James Foley. The victim in the video said U.S. airstrikes had “signed my death certificate.” A second Islamic State video warned President Barack Obama to halt attacks on its forces or another American journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, would die.

The Islamic State first captured Mosul on June 10 and within days had pushed nearly to Baghdad as the Iraqi army, which the U.S. government spent billions of dollars to train and equip, collapsed, often without a fight. Only the arrival of Iranian-funded and -trained Shiite militias around the capital – called into action by Shiite religious leaders to face the Sunni Muslim Islamic State – was able to bring the fighting to a virtual stalemate in Baghdad’s suburbs. But it also raised the specter of the nation of Iraq’s disintegration over sectarian rivalries.

The government’s hopes of replicating that success in Tikrit, which was the the scene of a brutal massacre of as many as 1,700 government fighters in June and a debacle of an operation to retake the city in July, were quickly dashed by fierce resistance that the poorly trained and led Iraqi army could not overcome.

“The army is stuck on the highway on the outskirts of town to the south and west, they cannot even enter the villages outside because of heavy fighting,” said a Tikrit resident reached by phone, who asked not to give his name out of fear of the government and militants alike. The resident said the militants were using heavy machine guns, snipers and sustained mortar barrages on the advance and that the approaches to the city were heavily mined.

“Daash has been preparing for the return of the army for a month,” the resident said, using the derogatory Arabic nickname for the group. “Without American help they will not be able to enter the city.”

In a letter to Congress released Sunday, Obama defined the extent of his administration’s willingness to use force in support of the Iraq government as limited to actions to either protect U.S. economic and diplomatic facilities – such as airstrikes to protect the Kurdish capital of Irbil – or to prevent sectarian ethnic cleansing as U.S. planes intervened to help protect hundreds of thousands of religious minorities fleeing the city of Sinjar as it fell to the Islamic State almost two weeks ago.

The U.S. administration has not ruled out some form of direct military support for the Iraqi government, but it has repeatedly said that the Iraqi government will need to make a substantial effort to bridge the divide between the Shiite-led government and the Sunnis who were alienated by the policies of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to the point of open revolt.

Dan Trombly, an Iraq military analyst from Caerusa Associates, a Washington consultancy, said that Tuesday’s defeat showed that the Iraqis had made little progress in reforming their military from the shattered hulk that was swept aside by a much smaller force of fighters from the Islamic State in June.

“From what we’ve been able to see in Tikrit, ISF has made far too little progress towards building organizational cohesion and professionalism,” he said by email, referring to Iraqi security forces. “The new volunteers seem undertrained and coordination between and within conventional military units and militia forces is insufficient to withstand the pressure of relatively simple guerrilla tactics.”

Trombly noted that a national military with heavy armor and artillery support, as well as rudimentary air power from a handful of decades-old Iraqi air force jets, should not see an offensive stalled simply because the enemy fought back.

“If a force with access to armor and artillery shuts down because of harassing sniper attacks, mortar fire, and minefields, that speaks more to its discipline and coordination than a particularly strong defensive performance,” he noted. “In the big offensive a month ago, ISF was able to enter Tikrit and then fell back after heavy coordinated ambushes, in this case it appears ISF wasn’t even able to go that far before the offensive lost steam. ISF still has big strides to make in training new volunteers, and finding solid leadership.”