Sunday 23 November 2014

Iraq army moves in on 'ghost town' held by rebel fighters

Patrick Cockburn

Published 30/06/2014 | 02:30

Iraqi army troops have advanced to the entrance of Tikrit but insurgents hold the rest of the city
Iraqi army troops have advanced to the entrance of Tikrit but insurgents hold the rest of the city
Members of Iraqi security forces celebrate near bodies of militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who were killed in clashes near Samarra. Reuters
Tanks belonging to the Iraqi security forces take part in an intensive security deployment on the outskirts of the city of Samarra. Reuters
Families, who fled from violence in Mosul, arrive on the outskirts of Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region. Reuters
A vehicle belonging to Kurdish security forces fires a multiple rocket launcher during clashes with Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Jalawla, Diyala province. Reuters
Kurdish Peshmerga troops fire a cannon during clashes with militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Jalawla, Diyala province. Reuters
Iraqi security forces patrol after clashes with the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the town of Dalli Abbas in Diyala province. Reuters
Russian soldiers unload a Russian Sukhoi SU-25 plane in al-Muthanna Iraqi military base at Baghdad airport in Baghdad. The first batch of Russian fighter jets arrived in Baghdad on Saturday to help Iraqi forces battle Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in the country's north. Reuters
Members of the Iraqi security forces prepare to fire artillery during the clashes with the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the town of Dalli Abbas in Diyala province. Reuters
Members of Iraqi security forces take their positions during a patrol looking for militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) west of Kerbala. Reuters
Members of Kurdish security forces with weapons take cover in a shelter during clashes with the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in the village of Basheer, south of the city of Kirkuk. Reuters
Members loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) wave ISIL flags as they drive around Raqqa. Reuters
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic "Caliphate" and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a statement posted on jihadist websites said on Sunday. The group, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS, has renamed itself "Islamic State" and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi as "Caliph" - the head of the state, the statement said. REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Iraqi army troops have advanced to the entrance of Tikrit but insurgents hold the rest of the city, from which people have fled in expectation of a battle. There is no electricity or water and the streets are empty.

"It is a town of ghosts," said Abu Nahib who had just brought his sister from Tikrit to Baiji, where fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) are in control, though not of the crucial oil refinery. "Isis still holds Tikrit but there is a huge number of soldiers just outside it and there has been random bombing." The government says troops landed by helicopter have taken parts of Tikrit University and have positioned snipers in its high buildings.

It is important for the Iraqi government to win some sort of success at Tikrit or elsewhere, after three weeks of military reverses at the hands of Isis and Sunni militant groups. The regular army, which is 350,000 strong, has previously disintegrated or failed to fight against smaller groups of insurgents.

The recapture of Tikrit would be useful for the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is under sustained criticism for driving the five or six million-strong Sunni community into a revolt led by Isis. He appointed the senior military officers who have failed to fight and, in some cases, have abandoned their soldiers and fled.

Mr Maliki's chances of holding on to his job when parliament meets tomorrow have been damaged by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia religious leader, coming out against him more and more openly. Mr Sistani is immensely influential among Iraq's Shia who make up 60pc of Iraq's 33 million people.

On Friday, he called through a representative for a new president, speaker of parliament and prime minister to be chosen. Iraqi leaders and their allies hope that a prime minister more open to accommodation with the Sunni than Mr Maliki would split the alliance of Sunni tribes, army officers and local leaders led by Isis.

The Isis offensive appears to have lost some of its momentum as its fighters enter mixed Sunni-Shia areas north of Baghdad. Tens of thousands of Shia volunteers have gone to the front to reinforce regular units. In Tahrir Square in central Baghdad at the weekend, employees of Al-Sharq, a Shia newspaper, were signing on as volunteers in the middle of a demonstration. One of them, Abu Sadiq, said that if Isis "comes to Baghdad then we will fight to the last drop of our blood".

His friend, Adel Salman, said he looked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps led by Qasem Soleimani for leadership on the grounds that "the Iranians are Muslims and Shia". He did not want American troops to come back to Iraq, but said that American advisers and air strikes would help.

A sign of foreign support was the arrival of five Sukhoi SU-25 Russian war planes, though it will take four or five days to make them ready for action. The idea is that they will provide air support and be able to destroy Isis's columns of pick-ups crammed with fighters.

The partial collapse of the Iraqi security forces, consisting of 350,000 soldiers and 650,000 police, on June 10 remains one of the greatest debacles in military history. Failure to make progress at Tikrit would inflict further damage on the Iraqi military's reputation, but retaking the city, famous throughout the world as Saddam Hussein's home town, would be the sort of tangible success the army needs.

The army has not only been driven out of three Iraqi provinces this month, but was unable to recapture Fallujah from Isis in the six months after it was lost in January.

Isis may be unable to capture the capital, which has a population of seven million, the majority Shia. But Isis could also inflict serious damage on Baghdad by shutting the international airport by firing a few mortar rounds at it.

Isis could try to cut off the capital from the south by gaining control of Sunni towns such as Iskandaria and Mahmoudiya just south of Baghdad. There are some signs its fighters are trying to sever the road to Najaf.

In Jurf Al Sakhar, 53 miles from Baghdad, militants from Isis lunched an attack.

Three police sources said at least 60 Isis fighters had been killed, along with more than 15 Iraqi security forces members, when the militant group launched an attack on an army camp just east of the city, firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenade rounds.

"The Isis terrorists fired many mortars at the camp and then started their offensive. They managed to break into the camp but could not hold their positions due to army helicopter cover," a police colonel said.

In Baghdad, morale has improved in the past week, but might easily collapse if Isis was able to win more spectacular successes.

Independent News Service

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