After weeks of retreats and collapses in the face of a smaller terrorist army, the Iraqi military has launched an offensive aimed at retaking two strategic positions previously lost to ISIS. Iraq now claims to have Tikrit back under its control, and they are attempting to push ISIS out of Mosul in a strategy aimed at stopping the advance on Baghdad:
Iraqi security forces retook the city of Tikrit on Saturday, a local tribal leader and state media said, as they went on the offensive against the Sunni extremist militants who have seized swaths of northern and western Iraq.
Sheikh Khamis al-Joubouri, a key tribal leader in Tikrit, told CNN that the Iraqi security forces entered the city supported by special forces and fighters from among the local tribes, and had gained control.
He said that fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) retreated in the direction of Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces.
However, amid claim and counter-claim, a combatant told a CNN freelance reporter that ISIS fighters remained in control of Tikrit, but that there are fierce clashes in an area about 20 kilometers from the city center, toward Samarra.
ABC News and AP report that most of the effort is focused on Tikrit, but that Mosul is also part of the offensive:
Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country.
After watching much of Iraq slip out of government hands, military officials sought to portray the push that began before dawn as a significant step that puts the army back on the offensive. They said the operation includes commandos, tanks and helicopters, as well as pro-government Sunni fighters and Shiite volunteers.
Tikrit residents reported clashes on the outskirts of the city and to the south, but the extent of the fighting was unclear.
Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the Salahuddin Operation Command, said the immediate objective is Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein and one of two major cities to fall to the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and allied Sunni militants. He said there was no concrete timeline for the operation to conclude.
Helicopter gunships conducted airstrikes before dawn on insurgents who were attacking troops at a university campus on Tikrit’s northern outskirts, Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. There was no immediate word on casualties.
ABC also provides some background on the situation in Baghdad itself:
The offensive may be having an effect on the terrorists. CNN also reports that ISIS now claims that Iraqi forces are committing atrocities against their fighters, a rather ironic complaint coming from an organization that bragged about the mass executions they were committing. This video contains graphic images, so be warned:
Back in Baghdad, the war has definitely had an impact on politics. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani publicly demanded a change at the top, and it looks like Nouri al-Maliki’s run as Prime Minister may come to a crashing end in the next few days:
Iraqi party leaders planned delicate talks that could end Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s divisive rule after a top Shi’ite cleric called for a new premier to be chosen without delay to tackle Islamist rebels threatening to tear apart the country.
Major powers are pushing for a new inclusive government, rather than one pursuing Shi’ite sectarian domination, to be formed fast to counter the insurrection that has spilled across the border with Syria and could menace the wider Middle East.
In a striking political intervention on Friday that could signal the demise of Maliki’s eight-year tenure, influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged political blocs to agree on the next premier, parliament speaker and president before a newly elected legislature meets in Baghdad on Tuesday.
“The next 72 hours are very important to come up with an agreement…, to push the political process forward,” said a lawmaker and ex-government official from the National Alliance, which groups all Shi’ite Muslim parties.
That may well be why the military offensive launched today. If Maliki can regain key territory, he might be able to convince the power players in Baghdad to keep him in harness for a while longer. If not, though, a new PM might call Barack Obama’s bluff and form a unity government in order to demand US military intervention against ISIS.
Update: Marco Rubio warns that the US had better not stay on the sidelines for long:
As we have learned in the past, terrorists seek safe havens from which to operate, often in failed or failing states. They use this territory to train and equip themselves, raise funds and plot attacks.
In addition to the threat to the U.S. homeland, we also need to be concerned that if Iraq begins to fragment, the resulting chaos and instability will ripple throughout the region.
ISIS has sown incredible instability in Syria and is now seeking to do the same in Iraq. If we allow ISIS to spread further, their next targets will be U.S. allies and partners already under sufficient strain from the ongoing conflict in Syria, such as Jordan and even Saudi Arabia. …
Some will argue that the challenges faced by Iraq or countries such as Jordan are none of our business. That we have spent too many years, lives, and dollars trying to make Iraq and the broader Middle East a better place.
None of the options before us are ideal, but the question is whether we take action against ISIS now or deal with the consequences later here on U.S. soil.
The stakes are too high for us to continue to ignore this problem.
So far, though, the West’s interventions in the region have mainly proven to be either entirely mistaken or inadequately prosecuted. I’m not sure that our tenacity for seeing even a good strategy through to success has improved over the last 22 years since the Gulf War, either.