The military campaign against Islamic State in Iraq continues. Amid competing claims made by the various parties to the conflict (Iraq, Iran, the United States and its coalition partners) it is difficult to assess the current status of IS in the country. US defence sources have been notably cautious. It is certainly the case that it the movement is making progress elsewhere, including new territorial gains in Syria and a linked group claiming responsibility for the museum attack in Tunis on 18 March 2015.
The contest over Tikrit, however, offers clues about the possible course of the war. An Iraqi operation to retake the city, north of Baghdad, was announced in early March. Three indicators were given: it would be purely an Iraqi effort, the United States would not be involved, and sufficient forces would be deployed to enable the city to be seized quickly.
In the event, early reports from Baghdad did speak of successes. But it also became clear that most of the attacking forces were not Iraqi army units but Shi’a militia supported by advisors, equipment and quite possibly special-force units from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Three weeks into the war, however, it became obvious that the attack was stalling. The overwhelming number of troops and paramilitaries committed to the attack was on the Iraqi side: a total (according to multiple sources) of around 30,000, mostly militias, against no more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters.
Iraqi government sources claimed on 31 March-1 April that the city is largely in their hands, though much of this appears to be hype. It resembles the statement of General Qassim of the Iraqi army in summer 2014 which said Tikrit had fallen to government forces, and that just a handful of insurgents remained around Saddam Hussein’s former palace, burying their dead.
The past behaviour of Islamic State units suggests that they may well be ready to move elsewhere, and could withdraw very suddenly. But at the time of writing some hundreds of them remain entrenched and show no sign of moving, even though the intense US air assault now underway has been described by one Iraqi military source as amounting to carpet-bombing.
In ordinary circumstances (to the extent that they exist in a war like this), the firepower advantages of the Iraqi forces would have killed the defenders or forced them to surrender many days ago. It appears there are three reasons why this has not happened. The first, that the Iraqi army troops are not sufficiently well trained, organised or motivated to succeed; the second, that the far larger contingents of Shi’a militia personnel are incompetent in urban counterinsurgency.
A decade's legacy
Both are plausible and likely to be part of the explanation, but the third factor is key and relates to the defenders not the attackers. There is abundant evidence that Islamic State has become stronger over the last eighteen months. At the centre of its military capability is a core of highly experienced officers and NCOs; predominantly Iraqi, originally from elite units of Saddam Hussein’s forces, they have the added advantage of long periods of combat experience against US and British special forces in the bitter and violent “shadow war” fought principally from 2004 to late 2007.
The military position seemed to have changed by 2008, when General Stanley McChrystal’s Task Force 145 from the joint special-operations command (JSOC) was given the main credit for curbing the insurgency. That process, combined with George W Bush’s "surge" of conventional forces, made it easier for Barack Obama to campaign for, and then oversee, the US retreat from the country (see "Islamic State and its Potential", Oxford Research Group, October 2014).
At the time, it wasn’t recognised that many Iraqi survivors of that war had gained valuable experience of combat and acquired a deep hatred of the US-led coalition’s elite TF-145. It is very probably they who have gone on to form the new hard core of Islamic State's paramilitary capabilities.
There is some conjecture about this analysis. But it is a plausible explanation of the ability of Islamic State to keep control of much of Tikrit in the face of an intensive month-long assault by much larger force. Put bluntly, they are used to this kind of conflict whereas the Iraqi army and militias are not.
This is significant beyond what happens in the coming days in Tikrit. Even if the remaining IS fighters do withdraw to the intense relief of the Iraqi government, and even if the new coalition continues to provide heavy air power, these factors will not be decisive. It is going to be a long war, stretching over years rather than months.