After ousting Islamic State militants from the city of Tikrit, Iraqi forces still must reclaim large areas of the west and north. A major goal for government forces and the sectarian militias and U.S. airpower backing them is Mosul, the largest city under militant control. But whether the next offensive will target Mosul directly or work towards it through an interim objective is open to question.
In Mosul, Islamic State militants appear to be bracing for an assault. But a top Iraqi Shia militia leader says the next target for Baghdad’s anti-jihadist offensive will be Anbar province, which he insists can be liberated without any American military assistance.
Hadi al-Ameri, head of Iraq's powerful Shia militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), told a news conference Friday in the center of Tikrit that his forces plan to advance westwards next to free Anbar province from Sunni Islamic militants.
Tikrit fell after a weeks-long assault, and al-Ameri poured scorn on the role played by U.S. airpower, dismissing the importance of American-led airstrikes in assisting the Iraqis’ hard-won victory over the so-called Islamic State.
“If the Iraqi government wants to be thankful to the United States for the Tikrit operation, let them be. But we will not give credit to the U.S.-led coalition and we don’t need them here,” said al-Ameri, highlighting the fragility of the makeshift alliance battling to dislodge the militants from northwest and central Iraq.
Iran-backed Shia militias have spearheaded Baghdad’s offensive against Islamic State while the Iraqi army is being reconstituted, causing unease in Washington and in Ankara. Shia militia leaders reacted angrily a week ago when the Iraqi government asked Washington to mount airstrikes on Islamic State forces defending Tikrit after the government assault that started in early March got bogged down in the face of suicide bombings by Islamic militants and their tactical use of improvised explosive devices.
Some Shia militia leaders withdrew their forces from Tikrit’s front lines in protest of the American participation, threatening to shoot at U.S. aircraft. Others remained in place, saying they were doing so in order to deny Washington credit for the fall of Tikrit.
The assault on Tikrit was launched without any planning participation by Washington, U.S. officials have admitted.
The U.S. military has publicly earmarked Mosul as the next target of the offensive against Islamic State in Iraq. Pentagon officials in February predicted the assault would begin by April or May - a disclosure that should not have been made, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter later said.
Any operation to retake Mosul would be far more complex than the Tikrit offensive. Mosul has almost eight times the area and population of Tikrit.
On March 18, Iraq's defense minister said Baghdad saw the Sunni province of Anbar - the first Iraqi province to fall to the Islamic State's group's insurgency last summer - as key to the retaking of Mosul, the country's second-largest city.
Khalid al-Obeidi told reporters it would be necessary to “secure" Anbar first in order to cut off Islamic State supplies and to avoid Iraqi forces being harassed from behind when focusing on Mosul.
But on the same day, Iraqi planes dropped hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets over Mosul urging civilians to collaborate against the Islamic State ahead of a military push on the city.
The fliers promised that the city would be liberated soon. Qais Karim, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the air force’s C-130 Hercules planes made the drops to “mobilize the people.”
Rafid Jaboori, the spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said recently that the battle for Mosul would be led by reconstituted army forces newly trained by American advisers and that they would be supported by Kurdish peshmerga units and backed by U.S.-led airstrikes. He downplayed the role the Shia militias would play in the assault.
Western powers have expressed increasing alarm about the outsized role Shia militiamen linked to Tehran are playing in the rollback of Islamic State. They fear that their involvement will prompt local Sunni anger and reduce the chances of persuading Sunni tribesmen to break alliances with Islamic State.
Islamic State appears to believe Mosul is likely to be the next city targeted by its enemies. The militants have warned they won’t surrender the city of a million people but are ready to destroy it. Islamic militants have been fortifying Mosul, building concrete walls, erecting berms and strengthening defenses at main access points.
They have also been moving out agricultural produce, including wheat, from surrounding areas to stock up supplies in Mosul and to transport the rest to Islamic State-held territory in neighboring Syria, according to political activists.
It remains unclear whether U.S. strategists have been consulted on whether Mosul or Anbar will be the next target. For weeks now, U.S. officials have stressed the importance of targeting Mosul next but have also cautioned that Tikrit will have to be cleared first of all Islamic militants. They have warned also the battle for Mosul would have to wait until the Iraqi army has sufficient newly trained forces to lead the assault.
According to Major General Paul Funk, who is overseeing the U.S. effort to train Iraqi soldiers, two brigades of Iraqi troops have finished training - that’s about 4,000 soldiers. Three more brigades have just started the nine-week training program.
“We're going to keep training the Iraqi army as long as they keep showing up,” he said. The initial goal, however, is to train 10,000 troops, Funk told the Military Times newspaper Friday. “Ten thousand is our initial tranche into what we like to say are the counter-attack brigades,” he said.
But analysts say 10,000 will not be enough to spearhead an assault on the city the size of Mosul without Shia militias being significantly in the mix. U.S. officials say they are monitoring the conduct of Shia militiamen, who have been accused in the past by Iraqi Sunnis and rights groups of human right abuses.
Amnesty International said Thursday it was investigating reports of serious rights violations during the Tikrit offensive, including allegations of executions, abductions and the burning and looting of homes.
And on Friday, CNN filmed Shia militiamen dancing in Tikrit as one of their fighters held up the severed head of a man they said had been an Islamic State fighter, threatening the same fate will befall all Sunni militants they encounter.