Iraqi security forces backed by sectarian militias took control of the last Islamic State strongholds in Tikrit on Wednesday, the first successful operation by the government in Baghdad to reclaim a major Sunni Muslim population center since the extremist group took control of most of central, western and northern Iraq last year.
Reports from the scene indicated that the operation, far bloodier than anticipated when the security forces and their Shiite militia allies began it a month ago, had destroyed most of the city and surrounding areas. The death toll among the pro-government forces exceeded 1,000.
In Washington, the White House acknowledged the triumph and credited the late and controversial intervention by U.S. aircraft, which began bombing Islamic State sites last week after the Iraqi push had stalled for two weeks.
“You’ll recall that when this operation began, it did not include the support of coalition military airstrikes,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. The operation, Earnest said, “got stalled, right on the outskirts of the city, and remained stalled for a couple of weeks.”
Five days of airstrikes ended that stalemate, Earnest said, calling the result “a pretty compelling description of the successful implementation of our strategy.”
What it means for future operations against Islamic State forces in other areas they control was uncertain.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi asked for American air support over the objections of Iraq’s largest Shiite militias, which had planned the operation as a showcase of the country’s ability to handle the Islamic State threat without Western involvement.
The episode revealed tensions within Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government over the roles of the U.S.-led air coalition and of Iran, whose famed Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani had personally supervised the early stages of the offensive. Some of the militias pulled out of the offensive in protest, and it appeared Wednesday that the bulk of the forces in Tikrit were Iraqi army troops.
Earnest said the Iraqi force that had entered Tikrit on Wednesday was “a multi-sectarian force that’s being led by the Iraqi military,” though the Shiite militias remain vital to assembling a large enough fighting force to tackle other Islamic State strongholds. There had been no American airstrikes on Tikrit in the last 24 hours, according to U.S. Central Command’s Wednesday statement of activities.
In announcing the end of operations, Abadi’s minister of defense, Khalid al Obeidi, promised to continue the fight in Nineveh and Anbar, major provinces to the north and west, respectively, that remain largely under Islamic State control.
“Here we come to you, Anbar! Here we come to you, Nineveh, and we say it with full resolution, confidence and persistence,” he said.
Any operation to retake Mosul, the seat of Nineveh , would be far more complex than the Tikrit offensive. Mosul has almost eight times the area and population of Tikrit, and it’s the heart of the Islamic State’s financial network.
Militia leaders have repeatedly said their next priority would be Anbar, which not only controls approaches to Baghdad and its international airport but also connects directly to Iraq’s Shiite heartland in the south, an area the militias are particularly concerned with keeping secure.
The danger wasn’t entirely over in Tikrit. Iraqi forces there were sweeping buildings for stray suicide bombers and snipers and were only beginning to dismantle thousands of booby traps and roadside bombs the Islamic State had left behind.
A military officer in the provincial command center outside Tikrit said Islamic State fighters had fled to Shirqat and Hawija, two nearby cities still under Islamic State control. The officer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to a reporter, said that more than 520 improvised bombs had been disarmed but thousands more were still to be dealt with.