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Tikrit offensive drags on as Islamic State advances elsewhere

A losing battle? Iraqi troops and Shia volunteers near Tikrit. EPA/Baraa Kanaan

The Iraqi army’s assault on the city of Tikrit began with upbeat promises that it wouldn’t take long to overrun the Islamic State (IS) paramilitaries which had taken control of the city. Once Tikrit was back in government hands, the way would be clear to start moving north towards Iraq’s second city of Mosul.

There were even confident predictions from both the military and government that Mosul itself would be subject to intense assault in April or May and that retaking it would deal a huge blow to IS. After all, it was the capture of Mosul in June 2014 that finally alerted Baghdad, the US and an array of regional and Western states to the seriousness of the IS threat.

Within two weeks, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al Abadi, said that victory was near and would be achieved “totally by Iraqi hands” –- but barely a week later, things look very different.

The assault on Tikrit has clearly stalled. Although many of the villages around the city have been retaken, the forces attacking the city itself have withdrawn to regroup, as much more information comes to light about the nature of the fighting.

Government forces have been facing intense opposition, losing up to 60 men a day, with many of them being taken to the Shia holy city of Najaf for burial. The forces attacking Tikrit have been overwhelmingly Shia militias – and not Iraqi Army units – comprising 23,000 militia paramilitaries and just 3,000 Iraqi troops, heavily backed up by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps specialists.

IS’s defenders, meanwhile, number between 400 and 1,000, a tiny clutch of determined fighters holding off a force more than 20 times its size.

It is still likely that Tikrit will be retaken at some stage – but not necessarily because of Iraq’s might or skill.

On all fronts

The usual pattern of IS’s paramilitary operations is to fight as long as is practical and then withdraw to fight elsewhere – and this is already happening at this particular flashpoint.

In a little-noticed operation, IS fighters recently overran the strategically important headquarters of the Iraqi army’s Brigade 26 at Thar Thar near Baghdad, killing 30 Iraqi Army personnel and wounding 40. That this was done even as intense fighting surrounded Tikrit shows IS is not putting all its resources into maintaining control of the city.

Indeed, in the long term, what is now happening may even aid the movement. There is mounting evidence that the government-linked Shia militias that are so important to the whole campaign are frequently taking revenge on Sunni communities wherever they gain control.

There was evidence of this in a Human Rights Watch Report on a government attack on the town of Amerli as long ago as summer 2014, when thousands of houses were torched in 30 neighbouring villages.

Similar actions are now being reported around Tikrit – and these, combined with all the Shia militia actions of recent months, herald an increase in support for IS from Sunni clans right across northern and north-west Iraq.

From the perspective of the IS leadership in Raqqa, Syria, there are other positive signs outside the immediate zone of conflict.

Expanding the map

Tunisia has long been one of the main sources of foreign recruits to IS cause, but there were worries that as Tunisia’s tourist industry recovered, helping the overall economy and reducing the anger and frustration among unemployed youths, the country as a source of recruits would diminish as a threat.

But the Bardo Museum massacre, timed to coincide with a cruise ship visit, could both seriously damage the tourist industry and spark a severe government crackdown on extreme elements. Both of these moves would fuel anger on the margins – and thereby supply yet more IS recruits.

Similarly, an IS affiliate’s attack on the Shia mosques in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, which killed well over 100 people on March 20, had a specific purpose: to remind Saudis sympathetic to IS that its supporters are active in Yemen, where the Houthi ascendancy is of considerable concern to Riyadh given the rebels’ Iranian links.

An Iraqi tank approaching Tikrit. EPA/STR

Saudis already fear a “Shia crescent” stretching from Lebanon and Syria through Shia-dominated Iraq and on to Iran and the Arabian Sea – so Iran’s strengthening influence in Yemen is dire news for them indeed.

IS’s influence in chaotic Libya is also on the rise. And the government of Afghanistan has now stated what many people expected: that there are factions in the country now pledging allegiance to IS.

The icing on the cake was Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent victory in the Israeli elections.

Much as Ian Paisley was once described as the Provisional IRA’s best recruiting sergeant in Northern Ireland, so Netanyahu is similarly regarded in Raqqa – even more so if he makes good on his promises to allow more settlements, stand tough on Gaza and confront Tehran.

Take all this together and it is hard to dispute that, far from being on the defensive, IS’s leaders are surely confident that their reign is far from over. After all, they clearly see this as a conflict set to stretch over not months or years, but decades.

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