NAJAF, Iraq — Iraqi forces’ operation to retake the city of Tikrit has stalled as troops suffer heavy casualties at the hands of Islamic State militants, raising concerns about whether the pro-government fighters are ready for major offensives.
After two days of little activity on the battlefield, Iraq’s interior minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, confirmed Monday that the offensive has “temporarily stopped.” The steady flow of coffins arriving in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf suggests a reason for the pause; cemetery workers say as many as 60 war dead have been arriving each day.
Since last week, Iraqi forces have hemmed in the Sunni militants in Tikrit, claiming control of the majority of the former Islamic State stronghold. But the operation has come at a cost, with soldiers saying the fight has been tougher than expected. As the momentum has slowed, some Iraqi officials have begun to publicly call for U.S.-led air support.
One is slightly bemused that war correspondents don’t grasp that as you approach the enemy Main Line of Resistance, you tend to get more resistance.
Whether the volunteer Iraqi militias, who are the bulk of the forces at work here, can mount a sustained campaign is a valid question. And it is a near certainty that they’re going to take more casualties than even a minimally trained genuine army.
But if Iraqi forces can isolate Tikrit, or even just mostly interdict the main lines of communication, they’ll have time on their side. They’ll be able to set the time and place of their assaults. They’ll be in a position to receive logistics and reinforcements, while IS forces work from dwindling stockpiles.
Ordinarily, one would urge speed in an assault. But that’s normally because you want to prevent an enemy from becoming set in his defenses. IS has been in Tikrit for months now. They’re defenses are already fixed. That argues for a more methodical approach by the Iraqi forces. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.