In Iraq, The Final Battle For Tikrit Is Likely To Be The Hardest
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The fight against ISIS in Iraq has put the U.S. and Iran on the same side. This past week, pro-government forces retook much of the city of Tikrit. They did it with the help of Iranian advisers on the ground. It's a major blow for the so-called Islamic State which seized Tikrit last June. The final battle is likely to be the toughest. And Iraqi officials say the advance is now on hold because ISIS has rigged the central part of the city with explosives. The expected victory in Tikrit says a lot about the larger campaign against ISIS. The U.S. continues to support the Iraqi forces from the air. For more, we're joined by NPR's Deborah Amos from Erbil in northern Iraq. Good morning, Deb.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So this final push to retake Tikrit is now on hold. Clearly it's more complicated than Iraqi forces first thought.
AMOS: Indeed. I sat with an Iraqi general who is taking a break here in Erbil as they set this plan to push the ISIS fighters out of the center of the city. And as you said, it's one giant IED. ISIS dug up the streets and planted mines. They have booby-trapped cars. They've got snipers. At the same time, Iraqis who are there in the fight say that some of these ISIS fighters are already leaving the city. They're moving back to Mosul which is their big base. So I think that's why that you do hear Iraqi officials saying it's maybe a week, maybe 10 days before government forces will take back Tikrit which is a victory both symbolic and military.
MARTIN: When we say pro-government forces, Deb, what are we talking about because there is an Iranian element here, right?
AMOS: Yeah. The numbers are really telling. So what you have with The National Army, it's really a token force. There's about 3,000 Iraqi soldiers. Then there's a smaller force of Sunni tribal Arabs who have come with them. But the bulk of the fighting is being done by Shiite militias - not just one, but three or four. That's about 20,000 men. There are Iranian advisers with them. They're often called the Shia militias backed by Iran. There's some concern in Washington because not only are they not trained, but they're also undisciplined. And we've seen some reports of revenge attacks of some Sunni civilians, reports of burning houses. Top officials of the government here in clerics have been calling on the Shia militias to show some discipline. But it's been successful, and it's been done with Iranian backing. This week I was at a security conference. And Dov Zakheim, he's the former Undersecretary for Defense. Here's what he said about this dance that the Iraqis are playing.
DOV ZAKHEIM: They're getting help from Iran. There's no question. They're walking a fine line between clearly relying on Iran, but not wanting to offend the West. They need us, and they need them.
AMOS: And you can hear Iraqi officials all this week saying thank you, Iran. Oh, yes, and thank you, the U.S., for those airstrikes.
MARTIN: We've been talking about Tikrit, Deb, but as you mentioned, ISIS fighters are, some of them, retreating back to Mosul which is essentially their central command. Some Pentagon officials here in Washington recently identified the spring as the timeframe for some kind of offensive to retake Mosul. What are you hearing there? Is there any clear indication as to when Iraqi forces might turn their attention to Mosul?
AMOS: Iraqi officials here are talking about that a victory in Tikrit would be a stepping stone to Mosul. But behind the scenes - far from clear what the timescale is, and the timetable seems to be slipping. Kurdish officials, Iraqi officials behind the scenes say it's months away. You can't use that same array of forces as was used in Tikrit. You have Shiite militias backed by Iranian advisors. That would be unacceptable in Mosul. It's a city of a million people, Sunni Arabs by far. It's called the city of officers. Many of Saddam's army officers are still there. And it's very possible they would move back towards ISIS if they were faced with an Iranian backed Shia militia force coming into their city. So the sense here is that Mosul may be under ISIS control for some time to come because there's not a force that can take it. The Iraqi army is far from ready, which we saw in Tikrit. And even more important, there's not a force that could hold it. There is not a trained police force or any kind of authority that could come into the city of a million people if ISIS is pushed out.
MARTIN: NPR's Deborah Amos from Erbil, Iraq. Thanks so much, Deb.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.