Iraq’s bid to free Tikrit is faltering; militants recover from loss of dam

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IRBIL, Iraq — 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 6 miles from the city’s entrance 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 the army had dismantled at least 40 roadside bombs, but he 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 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 Iraqi nation’s disintegration over sectarian rivalries.

The government’s hopes of replicating the Mosul Dam success in Tikrit, 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.

In a letter to Congress released Sunday, Mr. Obama defined the extent of his administration’s willingness to use force in support of the Iraq government as limited to actions either to 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 the Iraqi government will need to make a substantial effort to bridge the divide between the Shiite-led government and the Sunnis alienated by the policies of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the point of open revolt.

United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Barack Obama - Iraq - Saddam Hussein - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - Baghdad - U.S. Army - Iraqi armed forces - James Foley


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