Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iraqi security forces have taken control of key towns outside of Tikrit and are preparing to attempt to seize the central Iraqi city that has been under the control of the Islamic State since June of 2014. The Shiite militias, which are directed by Iran’s Qods Force, have led the fight to regain control of Tikrit.
Over the weekend, the Islamic State lost control of Al Dor and Al Awja, two towns south of Tikrit, and Abu Ajil, a town to the east on the opposite side of the Tigris River. Over the past 24 hours, Iraqi forces and the militias have entered Al Alam, a town northeast of the city. The Iraqi military claimed it “liberated” Al Alam yesterday, according to Al Shorfa, however the town is still contested, Reuters reported today.
The Shiite militias, which are said to make up two-thirds of the 30,000 troops involved in the Tikrit offensive, have dominated the fighting. These militias are operating under the aegis of the Popular Mobilization Committee, or Hashid Shaabi, which was created by former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to combat the Islamic State after the Iraqi military collapsed during the summer of 2014.
Qods Force “advisor” heads Popular Mobilization Committee
The Popular Mobilization Committee is led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a former commander in the Badr Organization who was listed by the US government as Specially Designated Global Terrorist in July 2009. The US government described Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, as “an advisor to Qassem Soleimani,” the commander of the Qods Force, the external operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Soleimani has been visiting the Shiite militias fighting on the Tikrit front, and is said to be directing the Tikrit operation. [See LWJ report, US sanctions Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades and Qods Force adviser, and Threat Matrix report, Iranian general at the forefront of the Tikrit offensive.]
In addition to leading the Popular Mobilization Committee, Muhandis is also said to direct the operations of Kata’ib Imam Ali (Imam Ali Brigade) as well as command the Hezbollah Brigades, two Iranian-backed militias that are involved in the fighting in Tikrit. Shebl al Zaidi, a former commander in the Mahdi Army who has been photographed with Soleimani in the past, is the secretary-general of the Imam Ali Brigade, which is operating from Camp Speicher, a sprawling military base northwest of the city.
Iranian-backed Shiite militas invested in Tikrit offensive
Other Shiite militias involved in the fighting include the Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), Asiab al Haq (League of the Righteous), Saraya Khorasani (Khorasan Brigades), and Kata’ib Sayyed al Shuhada (Battalion of Sayyed’s Martyrs). All of these militias receive support from Iran’s Qods Force.
Hezbollah Brigades, which has been spotted in Al Alam, was designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organization in July 2009. In that designation, State described the militia as “a radical Shia Islamist group with an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, US, and Coalition targets in Iraq.” State also reported that the militia receives funding, training, logistics, guidance, and material support from Qods Force.
Asaib al Haq, which has been fighting in Abu Ajil, is considered by the US government to be one of the most dangerous Iranian-supported Shiite militias. Several of its leaders, including Akram Abas al Kabi, the group’s military commander, are listed by the US government as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The group’s leader, Qais Qazali, was directly involved in the killing of US soldiers and was in US custody from 2007 up until his release as part of a hostage exchange at the end of 2009. Qazili has since threatened US interests in Iraq. [See LWJ reports, US sanctions Iranian general for aiding Iraqi terror groups, US releases ‘dangerous’ Iranian proxy behind the murder of US troops and Iranian-backed Shia terror leader freed by US threatens to attack.]
Kata’ib Sayyed al Shuhada has also been spotted in the fighting outside of Tikrit. This group is lead by Mustafa al Sheibani, a notorious terrorist who previously led what the US military called the Sheibani Network. Like Asaib al Haq and the Hezbollah Brigades, the Sheibani Network was responsible for conducting attacks against US and Coalition forces in Iraq from 2005 to 2011. His fighters were known to carry out attacks with the deadly, armor-piercing explosively-formed projectiles, or EFPs, as well as with mortars, Katyusha and other rockets, and small-arms assaults. Sheibani was sent back into Iraq by Qods Force in 2010 as US forces prepared to exit the country. [See LWJ report, Iran sends another dangerous Shia terror commander back to Iraq.]
Saraya Khorasani, which has been involved in the fighting in Al Alam, is also backed by Iran. The group was advised by Hamid Taqavi, an IRGC general who was killed by an Islamic State sniper late last year. Ali al Yasiri, the leader of Saraya Khorasani, said that Taqavi “was an expert at guerrilla war” and that “People looked at him as magical,” Reuters reported. The militia has also put up billboards praising Taqavi throughout Baghdad and published videos online to commemorate the Iranian general.
In addition to the Shiite militias, Iranian artillery forces as well as drones are directly supporting the Tikrit offensive, US officials have told The Wall Street Journal. Iran’s heavy involvement in the fight for Tikrit has led the US military with withhold air support.
Iranian hand in planning Tikrit operation is apparent
The influence of Soleimani and Qods Force in the latest offensive to retake Tikrit is apparent. Three previous attempts that were hastily launched by the Iraqi government and led by the Iraqi Army in the summer of 2014 failed. During one attempt in July, several Iraqi helicopters were shot down as they dropped off troops north of the city. In another attempt in August, Iraqi forces and Shiite militias rushed into the heart of the city but were ambushed and forced to withdraw.
The current offensive appears to be better planned than previous attempts to regain control of Tikrit. The militias and Iraqi forces are preparing the battlefield by securing supply lines southward to Samarra and gaining control of surrounding towns and villages before attempting to enter the city.
But victory for the Iranian-backed force is by no means assured. The military and militias have yet to wrest a major city from control of the Islamic State. Iraqi forces attempted to retake Baiji in December 2014 and succeeded in doing so for several days, but its troops ultimately abandoned the city after an Islamic State counteroffensive.
If the Islamic State decides to make a stand in Tikrit, casualties are assured to be heavy. During the Second Battle of Fallujah, in November 2004, it took more than 11,500 US Marines, soldiers and seamen and British troops, and 2,000 Iraqi troops to defeat entrenched al Qaeda in Iraq and allied fighters. Ninety-five American, four British, and eight Iraqi troops were killed killed during the assault. Al Qaeda in Iraq is estimated to have lost up to 1,500 fighters during the battle.
A fight to the death for Tikrit, in which neither side will follow US-established rules of engagement, will be costly for both.