The government offensive to take Tikrit (a Sunni Arab city 125 kilometers north of Baghdad) is basically an Iranian operation. Most of the troops involved are Iraqi Shia militia organized, trained, armed and advised (in some cases led) by Iranian officers. A senior Iranian general (head of the Quds Force, officially an international terrorist organization that organizes pro-Iran armed groups outside Iran) recently arrived to supervise the operation. No American air support is being used and the Americans say that is because Iraq did not request any. The real reason for no U.S. air support is the fact that this is an Iranian operation and if American smart bombs and missiles were used the Iranians would blame the Americans for any civilian casualties. Iraq fears there will be a lot of civilian casualties because most of the 200,000 residents of Tikrit are Sunni Arabs. This is the hometown of Saddam Hussein, who is still considered a hero here. Iran considers Saddam Hussein a war criminal and arch enemy of Shia Moslems.
The attack on Tikrit (which ISIL has held since mid-2014) began March 1st when 27,000 troops and militia advanced in three columns. After three days the attack force has moved into the suburbs of Tikrit and recaptured some villages. The main battle will be in Tikrit itself. American advisors say most Iraqi troops are not yet ready to handle large-scale urban warfare. The militias are trained for a more primitive style of combat that means taking a lot more casualties to advance. Iran has trained these guys to think of this as a religious war, of Shia against fanatic Sunnis who see Shia as heretics to be murdered on sight. Iran has trained the militia to see this as a very personal battle in which death is martyrdom and as much a reward as victory. The problem is that ISIL trains their people the same way so the U.S. (and many Iraqi Army commanders) expects an epic bloodbath made even more horrific by mass murder of Sunni civilians.
Iraq fears that the Kurds plan to take control of Mosul once ISIL is driven out. Before the 1980s and for centuries before that, Mosul was a majority Kurdish city. Saddam Hussein forcibly drove most of the Kurds out and replaced them with Sunni Arabs. While he also did this with nearby Kirkuk, the Kurds have managed to return to Kirkuk and get their property back. There are no plans to try that in the much larger Mosul but the Iraqi Arabs know the Kurds have a legitimate grievance here and fear retribution from the more powerful (on a man-for-man basis) Kurdish military. The Kurds on the other hand have made it clear that they don’t want a civil war and want to keep their casualties down.
Meanwhile the Iraqi Arab paranoia means the government is still withholding the Kurdish share of oil income and weapons the government is receiving to help fight ISIL. Despite that Kurdish forces are 24 kilometers north of Mosul and do not want to advance further unless part of a joint assault on the city. Even then the Kurds are not optimistic about the capabilities of the Arab troops or militia. Too often the Kurds have seen armed Arabs flee when fighting ISIL leaving nearby Kurds to take care of the mess. The Kurds and the new batch of American advisors find the Iraqi Arab troops unreliable and unpredictable. Corruption, insufficient training and incompetent NCOs and officers are all contributing factors but not all three can be fixed. More training only does so much. The most incompetent officers and NCOs have been removed although that often leaves a shortage of NCOs and officers. The corruption is endemic and is always a serious risk. The poor performance of Iraqi troops is nothing new and since the 1960s other Arab states in the region have considered the Iraqis the worst soldiers in the area. No one knows exactly why, because neighbor Jordan has some of the best Arab soldiers in the region.
Keeping American warplanes out of the Tikrit battle does not mean these aircraft are idle. The Iraqi Army, the Kurds and the pro-government Sunni Arab militias in Anbar all want more air support. Now these troops are also seeing, for the first time. Jordanian F-16s providing air support. Until recently Jordanian warplanes only operated in Syria. But because ISIL burned to death a Jordanian pilot the Jordanians have greatly increased the number of bombing missions their air force carries out and expanded those operations into Iraq. Some of the pro-government (or just anti-ISIL) Sunni tribes in Western Iraq have kinsmen in Jordan so providing air support is something of a tribal obligation.
ISIL still controls 80 percent of Anbar province (most of western Iraq), at least most of the time. ISIL has to move carefully during the day and avoid gathering in large numbers, all because of the American air power. The U.S. now has over 1,500 troops in Anbar to train and advise Iraqi troops and pro-government tribal militias. Most of these troops are at al Asad airbase. That has led to numerous ISIL attacks on the base and surrounding areas. Since ISIL rarely shows much discipline or imagination with these attacks they have largely failed. Iraqis handle security for the base but a few times American troops have been able to take part in the fighting. There are about 5,000 ISIL gunmen in Anbar and most of them were recruited from local tribes. These constant defeats at al Asad and in the two major cities (Ramadi and Fallujah) have been bad for morale, which means more of the local hires desert and take with them useful information on where ISIL stores its weapons and other important stuff. More of these sites are being bombed even though they are, from the air, just another building with nothing special going on around it. The locally recruited ISIL men are also unhappy with the ISIL policy of kidnapping tribal elders and killing them or holding them for ransom (money or cooperation from tribal chiefs). A lot of the local tribesmen working for ISIL are related to some of the elders kidnapped or murdered by ISIL and that bad treatment is not appreciated. ISIL needs some victories in Anbar but is having a hard time making that happen. This has led to some mid-level leaders openly criticizing the ISIL high command. Internal criticism is not the only problem ISIL faces as the Islamic terror group is not doing well so far this year. They admitted their defeat in Syria by the Kurds at Kobane and the Syrian Army is retaking ground elsewhere as well. The Kurds are also defeating ISIL forces near the Iraq border and in Iraq Kurds, Iraqi soldiers and Sunni and Shia militias are both stopping ISIL attacks and pushing back ISIL forces in a growing number of areas. An offensive to retake Mosul is expected before June. Meanwhile air attacks not only continue but are more frequent. This makes it more difficult to stockpile supplies or move large numbers of gunmen.
ISIL is not the only one having problems with bad behavior. Iraqi Shia leaders are taking the heat from pro-government Sunnis and foreign supporters for the growing number of incidents where Shia militia slaughter unarmed Sunni civilians. Officially the Shia leaders condemn these killings and say they are instilling more discipline in the militias under their control. The killings have abated but not disappeared, This religious animosity and violence have been active here for over a thousand years and won’t go away quickly.
The U.S. believes that Iraq has been a major help in Iranian smuggling activities. This included a recent operation involving getting a billion dollars in U.S. currency into Iran where it could be used to pay for essential imports. The Iranians gathered the cash using front companies and assets they have outside Iran (especially in Iraq).
March 2, 2015: North of Baghdad (Samarra and Balad Ruz) ISIL suicide car bombers attacked a Shia militia checkpoint and a market place leaving 27 dead.
March 1, 2015: In February about 1,100 Iraqis died from terrorist related violence. That’s about 20 percent less than January, when nearly 1,400 died. So far this year about 55 percent of the victims have been civilians. The death toll for all of 2014 was about 15,600. That’s a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. Previously the worst year was 2007, when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the death toll was 76,000. That’s over 91,000 dead in the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll in Syria continues to rise, even as it is declining in Iraq.
People have not been the only victims of ISIL, the Islamic terrorists are also destroying prominent non-Islamic historical structures. Iraq is full of those but ISIL considers them unholy and is using explosives, jackhammers and hand tools to shatter priceless antiquities. ISIL also seeks to drive out (or kill) all non-Moslems people, no matter how many thousand years they have lived in Iraq.
February 28, 2015: In the north Kurdish police arrested six clerics and accused them of supporting ISIL. Most Moslem clergy in the Kurdish north oppose ISIL and can do that openly without fear of retribution. But some of the more conservative clergy sympathize with ISIL and some have been caught showing that support clandestinely, often on the Internet. Few Kurds are supporters of Islamic radicalism, but there have always been a few.
In Western Iraq ISIL executed (by gunfire) 32 captured policemen and tribal militiamen. Locals were then allowed to give the dead a proper burial, something ISIL does not always allow.
February 25, 2015: The U.S. believes it will take at least another two months to train the 25,000 Iraqi troops to be used a major offensive to retake Mosul. The other two forces involved (Kurds and Iranian backed militias) are prepared to move now. The Kurds want a major, well planned and thought out operation in order to minimize their casualties. The Iranians are less concerned with casualties but know their militias cannot take the city by themselves. The Iranians hope to have a better idea of what their Iraqi militias are capable of after the upcoming assault on Tikrit. ISIL has fewer than 5,000 men defending Mosul but these are largely ready to fight to the death and thousands of other ISIL men would try to reinforce the Mosul defenders and air power would not be able to stop them all as they would arrive singly or in small groups, looking like civilians. American military officials began discussing this offensive publicly a week ago, apparently without consulting with the Iraqi government. This caused some diplomatic friction with the Iraqis until it was explained that the preparations for the Mosul offensive are no secret and that many Iraqi and Kurdish troops are involved in the preparations and the Iranians have their sources of how it is proceeding because Iranian backed militias will also be involved. ISIL also has its sources. Might as well let the public in on what is coming and what is involved.
February 23, 2015: In al Baghdadi (200 kilometers northwest of Baghdad and near the al Asad airbase) government forces along with Sunni and Shia militia chased ISIL out of part of the city killing at least twenty of them in the process. This was all part of an effort to protect the families of pro-government Sunni militiamen from ISIL retaliation. The problem is that the troops involved have proved to be unreliable and unpredictable as al Baghdadi has changed hands several times in the last two weeks, often when Iraqi troops simply withdrew without any explanation. Even senior Iraqi Army commanders could not get a straight answer or reasonable explanation from the officers and troops involved.
Over the weekend ISIL forces attacked several Kurdish positions north of Mosul and were repulsed, losing at least sixty dead. Kurdish losses were much less. This was the eighth ISIL “offensive” against the Kurds in this area and apparently the ISIL commanders in the area are not learning from their mistakes as the ISIL losses have been increasing with recent attacks.
February 17, 2015: In Western Iraq ISIL executed (by burning them alive in cages) 43 captured policemen and tribal militiamen. They made a video of it all to help with recruiting and raising the morale of their fighters.
February 16, 2015: The head of Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah admitted what many already knew, that hundreds of Hezbollah men were in Iraq helping train Shia militias and often getting involved with the fighting. The Iranian Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) helped form Hezbollah in the 1980s and built that Shia militia into a major force within Lebanon. Iraqis now fear Quds will try and do the same thing in Iraq and even many Iraqi Shia don’t want that. At the moment Iraq needs all the help it can get and Quds officers and trainers have been very useful. But Quds comes in with an agenda, and an implied promise of freedom for Quds to do its own thing, which includes making Iraq a vassal state of Iran. This is not easy to do and despite a quarter century of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran still has limited influence there. Despite that Iran continues to finance and arm Hezbollah, which made it easy for Iran to “request” Hezbollah to send thousands of gunmen into Iraq to help protect the pro-Iran Assad dictatorship and a few hundred to Iraq to help keep Iran safe from ISIL.