Iraqi forces celebrated progress in Tikrit on Tuesday, but analysts cautioned that securing the city that Islamic State fighters have controlled since June is not complete and warned that the next step, to retake Mosul, would be even more difficult than the weekslong battle in Tikrit, which required U.S. aid.
As Iraqi forces moved into the center of Tikrit, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tweeted to announce “the liberation of Tikrit and congratulates Iraqi security forces and popular volunteers on the historic milestone.”
Iraqi Security Forces began an offensive to retake the city in early March but were stalled for weeks encircling the city. American airstrikes last week helped loosen the Islamic State’s hold enough for Iraqi forces to enter the city and make progress in clearing it.
“We welcome the progress by Iraqi forces in Tikrit today and are consulting with our Iraqi partners to continue efforts towards the full liberation of the city,” said Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “The coalition will continue to provide support to the ISF as they continue to operate in the area.”
Analysts, however, warn that fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, still could wage attacks against the Iraqi forces left behind to keep Tikrit safe.
Analysts said the Iraqi prime minister’s tweet was more for optics and not based on the reality on the ground.
“[It’s] a political statement. I’m not sure how much that reflects the events on the ground,” said Ben Connable, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. “We still have to see if ISIS fighters have cleared out and if they plan on conducting terrorist activities against Iraqi Security Forces that will be left behind.”
Symbolic, strategic city
For Iraqis, securing Tikrit would be a major symbolic win against the Islamic State and would open the door — and secure supply routes — for Iraqi forces to take the fight to other cities under terrorist control, said Judith Yaphe, visiting professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
“If the government doesn’t take this one, they’re not going to get much farther,” she said. “They can’t just go to Mosul and bypass Tikrit.”
Iraqi forces Tuesday battled Islamic State militants holed up in downtown Tikrit, going house to house and street to street in search of snipers and booby traps as fighting raged into the afternoon. Estimates differed widely on how much Iraqi forces held in this strategic city on the banks of the Tigris River.
Army Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati said at least 75 percent of Tikrit had been recaptured. Ammar Hikmat, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said more than 40 percent was under Iraqi control.
“Our security forces are now pushing forward toward the presidential complex and have already entered parts of it,” Mr. Hikmat said. “I think the whole city will be retaken within the coming 24 hours.”
An Associated Press reporter embedded with Iraqi Security Forces saw soldiers surround the iconic presidential palace, and they also surrounded the provincial government headquarters.
Soldiers detonated bombs remotely while federal police went house to house to arrest militants and identify booby traps that may slow the offensive.
Islamic State militants seized Saddam Hussein’s hometown last summer during its lightning advance across northern and western Iraq.
Nora Bensahel, a scholar at American University, said the lengthy process to take Tikrit during which Iraqis suffered significant losses should serve as “a warning sign for how a campaign in Mosul may go.”
“Tikrit taking longer and requiring help from the U.S. suggests Mosul will be even harder than the government is preparing for,” she said.
Mosul is the largest city in Iraq dominated by the Islamic State group and the second-largest in the country, with just more than 1 million people. The Islamic State made Mosul its stronghold and was turning the city into its capital since fighters took control in June.
The Anbar strategy
American forces have stressed the need to secure Mosul but have let the Iraqi military take the lead in strategic planning.
Some senior Iraqi government officials have suggested driving the Islamic State out of Anbar province before tackling Mosul, Mr. Connable said. Securing Anbar province would ensure that Iraqi forces’ lines of communication remain safe and usable in battle, he said.
Taking Anbar province presents its own problems, however. Although the U.S. required all Iranian-backed Shiite militias to leave the battlefield before airstrikes, Ms. Bensahel said, it’s only a matter of time before they return and some reports suggest they already have.
This will give more numbers to forces fighting the Islamic State, but it would mean Shiite fighters in majority Sunni areas, she said.
“It raises concerns from the U.S. perspective about the extent of influence from Iran and fears about Shiite militias in Sunni populations there. That’s always been the U.S. concern,” she said. “I think the U.S. will be watching closely.”
Iraqi forces don’t have the power to take the Sunni-majority Anbar province without the help of Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, Mr. Connable said.
“The Sunni leaders I’ve spoken with are not excited about idea of Shia militias moving into Anbar province, but I don’t think Iraqi forces are capable yet of moving into Anbar without Shia help, so it’s problematic,” he said.
Mr. Connable also said the Iraqi forces don’t have the numbers to leave a residual force to secure Tikrit as well as launch offensives in Mosul and Anbar province, meaning military leaders will have to pick one or the other for their next battle.
Iranian military advisers have been providing significant support since the offensive began March 2, arming and training Iraqi Shiite militias, which have played prominent roles on the battlefield. Militiamen make up more than two-thirds of the force fighting the Islamic State in Tikrit.
But the operation stalled until U.S. forces joined the offensive by launching airstrikes March 25. Since then, Iraqi allied forces have moved in on the city, although they have been slowed by snipers and hidden bombs. The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said coalition forces conducted seven airstrikes in Iraq since Monday morning, including one in Tikrit that hit multiple Islamic State buildings.
U.S. military officials have said a coordinated mission to retake Mosul likely will begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. The Americans have cautioned that the offensive could be delayed if the Iraqis are not ready.
“The focus remains to drive ISIL out of Iraq,” said Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force.
“We have struck at ISIL’s command and control, supply lines, fighters and leaders, and military and economic infrastructure and resources,” he said. “We have debilitated ISIL’s oil producing, processing and transportation infrastructure. It will take time, but we will succeed in our mission.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.