Now, the failure of the Iraqi Army, and various allied militia, to kill all the IS fighters in Tikrit means the plans are changing.
With the advance into the heart of the city centre stalled the idea now is to contain the IS forces pinned against the Tigris River, then seal all the routes to it from the Sunni dominated Anbar province to the west, and only then fight north along the Baghdad –Mosul road network to prepare to liberate the country’s second biggest city.
It’s clear the Iraqi Army, which collapsed last June and fled Mosul, is not ready for what will be a far more fierce, bloody, and destructive fight than even the one for Tikrit.
The Americans are overseeing the Iraqi Army training for the job, but this is proving a frustrating process not least because the militia units appear a more attractive proposition for many volunteers.
Two Iraqi Divisions, thousands of militiamen, with Iranian support, have been halted inside Tikrit by what are thought to number no more than a few hundred remaining IS fighters.
After four weeks, suicide bombers, booby traps, and the sheer fanaticism of the IS men have exacted a high price on the attacking forces with fatalities in the hundreds and probably higher.
Baghdad which initially scorned the idea that its forces might need American airpower has now requested it. However, it remains ‘problematic’ for the Americans to be seen to launching air strikes in support of an operation which has Iranian troops involved. Instead, quietly, the Americans are now conducting surveillance flights.
Looking to the future, it will require perhaps three Iraqi Divisions, some 45,000 men, supported by Shia and Sunni militia groups, to take Mosul which is much larger and much better defended by greater numbers of fighters.
This means the hundreds of thousands of Mosul’s remaining residents, trapped under IS rule, are going to have to wait several months for the firestorm which will engulf their city when the fighting there begins. It could feasibly even be next year before the assault begins. By then IS will have re-enforced the city and honed its defensive plans.
If, eventually, Baghdad’s battle plan goes ahead it is likely to end with IS defeated in Mosul, but the price paid will be enormous. It will be a struggle to contain the sectarian tensions already showing around Tikrit given that Arab Sunni and Shia forces are operating in close proximity to the Kurdish peshmerga, and the Iranians.
The biggest danger is that the fighting will be so destructive we will be reminded of the infamous quote from the Vietnam War when an American officer said “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it”.