The lack of U.S. airstrikes in and around the city of Tikrit is slowing the Iraqi counteroffensive to retake the strategically situated city from the Islamic State’s terrorist army.
The assault, carried out by the Iraqi Security Forces and Shiite militiamen trained, equipped and led by Iran, has encircled the Sunni-dominated city north of Baghdad after more than three weeks of fighting. The Pentagon now says the battle is “static.”
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) puts part of the blame on a lack of U.S. air power. Though American and coalition fighters and drones are hitting targets in Islamic State-held land in Iraq and Syria, the list of objectives is absent any in and around Tikrit.
“The lack of precise coalition targeting is, for the first time, a limiting factor leading Iraqi commanders to halt the operation to retake Tikrit,” the ISW said in a new report.
The Pentagon says the Iraqi government has not asked for air support. The ISW says the Obama administration does not want to supply close air support for fear of being tied militarily to Iranian-led militias. These are the same groups that, at the direction of Iran, killed hundreds of U.S. troops during the 2003-11 Iraq War.
“The U.S.-led coalition is unlikely to directly support such a major effort by the militias with an overt Iranian role,” said the group.
While the Baghdad government may not have officially requested airstrikes, one of its top generals, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahad al-Saadi, who is commanding troops in the Tikrit operation, told AFP that he has requested U.S. air support.
That brought criticism from one of the top Shiite militia commanders, Hadi al-Ameri, who said Sunday that the Iraqi army is full of “weaklings.”
“We say we do not need the Americans,” Mr. Ameri told reporters at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, an ISW analyst, said the U.S. failure to provide what he called “the right air support” for the Iraqi forces has three drawbacks.
“It erodes the confidence of the ISF that they can succeed at acceptable costs,” said Mr. Dubik, who commanded the training of Iraqi troops in 2007-08. “It erodes the confidence that the government of Iraq has in the reliability of American support, and it strengthens the Iranian position that they are the more reliable partner.”
Mr. Dubik said the right kind of air support for urban combat in Tikrit would be AC-130 gunships and attack helicopters that can put precise cannon fire on the enemy.
To make such air support effective, the aircraft’s crews need spotters on the ground — units the Obama administration so far has refused to supply.
“Fixed-wing [aircraft] and drones may be precise, but the effects of their bombs may cause too many civilian casualties,” Mr. Dubik said.
Army Col. Steven Warren, director of Pentagon press operations, told The Washington Times that “Iraqi forces have encircled Tikrit and are on the outskirts of the city. Current situation is static.”
Col. Warren told reporters last week: “The Iraqis did make some public statements, many of which were reported in the press, that indicated that they had essentially almost completed their operation in and around Tikrit. We see now that that’s simply not the case. In my military mind, they have a way to go still. It’s still going to be a tough fight. Urban warfare is difficult. It’s slow.”
Col. Warren said such pauses are not unusual in a battle in which invaders need time to resupply.
The Pentagon estimates the number of Islamic State fighters in Tikrit in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands. But they are bolstered by thousands of booby traps — different types of improvised explosive devices that have proved effective in killing troops and destroying vehicles.
Tikrit, hometown of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, is seen as a steppingstone for a much larger battle ahead: retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The Pentagon will not say today whether it will supply air support for that major contest, which again is likely to include a larger number of Iranian-led Shiite fighters.
U.S. Central Command, which is leading the coalition against the Islamic State, released an airstrike tally that, as of March 18, lists more than 5,300 damaged or destroyed targets. These include 1,653 buildings, 1,003 fighting positions, 73 tanks and 151 oil-production sites.
In a sense, the U.S. has established a no-fly zone around Tikrit: It is hitting targets north and west but not Islamic State assets protecting the city.
Central Command reported Saturday, for example, that it hit sites near Mosul and Kirkuk in the north and near various towns in Anbar province to the west, but none around Tikrit.
The U.S. air armada includes Air Force B-1B bombers, F-16s, F-15Es and A-10s, Navy F-18 Hornets and Apache helicopter gunships, as well as Predator and Reaper drones.
If the predominantly Shiite Iraqi force is successful in retaking Tikrit, it is unclear whether it will spark more sectarian violence and atrocities against Sunni residents, some of whom surely have sided with the Islamic State.
“In Tikrit there is a heavy presence of popular mobilization forces which are Shiite in sectarian orientation and [are] getting some support from the Iranians. And that’s concerning to us,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee last week. “So it is a very mixed picture.”