The United States has replaced Iran, in the month-long battle against the Islamic State (ISIL), over control of the critical Iraqi city of Tikrit, the Sunni city, which is the capital of Sallahedin province 100 miles north of Baghdad. The defeat of ISIL in Tikrit is a crucial step towards any genuine prospect of a future offensive to take back Mosul, whether this year or next.
Since the start of the assault on Tikrit on March 2, US military forces remained on the sidelines, as 20,000 Shi’ite militia fighters, under command of the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Al-Quds Brigade, General Qassam Suleimani, led the assault, supported by Iranian missiles and an estimated 3,000 regular Iraqi Army troops.
According to American and Iraqi military sources, the Tikrit offensive bogged down after the first two weeks, as Shi’ite militias, including Asaib al-Haq and Kitaeb Hezbollah, ran up against serious resistance from an estimated 400-2,000 Islamic State fighters, entrenched in the center of Tikrit, with bombs planted at strategic sites around the city, cutting off bridges, streets and key buildings. More than 1,000 Shi’ite fighters have been killed so far in the assault, with one Asaib al-Haq commander, Jawwad al-Etlebawi, admitting that the forces lacked the urban warfare training necessary to take control of the city.
On March 15, Iraqi General Abdulwahab al-Saadi formally asked the Iraq Minister of Defense to request US air support and intelligence support for the stalled operation.
A week later, on March 22, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi contacted President Barack Obama to formally request the US engagement. At that point, the Pentagon laid down conditions for the shift. First, they demanded that the Iraq Army and other government security forces take the lead in the fighting. Second, they demanded that the IRGC forces, including Gen. Suleimani, leave the front lines.
American commanders, including Lt. Gen. James Terry, who is in charge of the US military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq, were surprised at the failure of the Iran-led offensive to retake Tikrit. Intelligence from the ground in Iraq confirmed the high casualty rates for the Shi’ite fighters, and Washington seized the opportunity to exploit Iran’s stalled combat operations, to reassert the American role as the “indispensable ally” of the al-Abadi government in the war on ISIL.
Following the al-Abadi-Obama phone conversation on March 22, the Iraqi Prime Minister issued a written declaration, over-riding Shi’ite militia objections to the American involvement, declaring “the Tikrit battle needs to be completed so security forces can move on to Anbar and Mosul.”