It has taken a long, hard, bloody month, but it now appears the Iraqi forces in Tikrit are on the verge of controlling the whole city including the complex of buildings in which Islamic State (IS) is making it last stand.
The Iraqi Army, backed by Shia and Sunni militia, and guided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, first surrounded Tikrit in late February and began a slow advance at the beginning of March, 8 months after Islamic State took Saddam’s former home town.
They moved in from all directions, taking villages in the approaches to the city, then thrust forward from the west and east pinning most of the IS fighters against the banks of the Tigris River by mid-March.
And they then ground to a halt.
The Government forces estimated that the several hundred remaining IS men had placed about 6,000 mines and IEDs in the streets and buildings around the little remaining territory they still held. Suicide bombings and sniper fire held up the operation by combat engineers to clear the area for the infantry to advance.
However, their work, and then limited air strikes by the US Air force last week, appears to have been enough to break the ring and allow the Government forces to make it all the way into the city centre.
We will now see if they are disciplined enough to capture some of the IS fighters and not then murder them. Not only would killing them be a war crime, but there will undoubtedly be some high level commanders who would be valuable intelligence assets. The other discipline challenge will be to restrain the Government troops, and Shia militia forces, from exacting revenge on the remaining Sunni population for the IS massacre of military prisoners last year.
The recapture of Tikrit will be trumpeted a success by the Government, as indeed it is, but the time and cost it has taken should worry them ahead of the far bigger operation to liberate Mosul. That is scheduled for later this year and IS is moving reinforcements there and preparing its defences.
In Tikrit there were about 30,000 troops on the Government side against perhaps 1,000 Islamic State fighters. The government had AH-64 attack helicopters, light and heavy artillery, and its huge numerical superiority was supported by satellite technology intelligence and fixed wing aircraft. Despite this it still took more than a month before victory looked certain and all the time the strange alliance of government forces, militia, the Iranian commanders, and the Americans, threatened to splinter.
Tikrit, in peace time, had a population of about 260,000 people. Mosul’s peace time population was about 1.8 million. It probably can be taken, although perhaps not until next year, how much of it will be left to be liberated is another question.