Following the recent coalition airstrikes and reports that the Hashd had withdrawn I was able to go out to Tikrit to get a view from the front on how the operations were proceeding. The day began with a meeting in central Baghdad with Major General Atheer Muhammad Jasim (Head of Intelligence, Federal Police) who showed us a gallery of operations conducted by his intelligence services that led to the capture or killing of several top daesh commanders, including Abu Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi, head of the Military Council for daesh, on 4 June 2014 in Mosul. This particular operation, conducted using intel gathered from interrogations (his car, the area he lived in, name of his wife), also led to the capture of Bilawi’s driver who informed his interrogators that daesh was planning to take over large areas of Mosul in the coming days. This information was passed onto the army’s Nineveh Operations Command but they did not act on it as a priority. It was confirmed that General Gharawi himself had received this information.
Our armoured convoy travelled onto Samarra where we were joined by a colonel in Salahudin’s FP Intelligence. He had the difficult job of ensuring those returning to the areas that had been resecured by the ISF were not daesh members. He was also working on leads and managing informants inside daesh itself. I asked how these informants came to be and the colonel explained that there were three types: those trained by his unit years ago and over the past year bad been rising up the ranks inside daesh, those who either had contacted his unit to become informants or were pressured/enticed to become informants, and those who were unwitting informants, under constant surveillance and left to operate without facing arrest as they were more valuable that way.
On the road to Tikrit we saw 4 battalions of Federal Police that were redeployed from al-Alam and other secure areas to southern Tikrit. The total number of FP participating in the Tikrit battle were 5,000 across 10 battalions. On the Samarra-Tikrit highway we also noticed a large number of Hashd fighters heading towards Tikrit. Checkpoints and major buildings were also staffed by Hashd and it was abundantly clear that very few or no PMU had actually withdrawn from Tikrit. In fact during discussions with FP and PMU commanders the only confirmed withdrawal from Tikrit were Saraya al-Salam who had just arrived in the area the week before.
We reached al-Awja, Saddam’s hometown, to the south of the city just before midday. This was clearly the frontline not too long ago but now contained several temporary operating bases for the FP and PMU. Some were large houses, others municipality or school buildings that now housed commanders and fighters who moved back and forth from the frontlines to the north. Some homes were damaged from artillery strikes and gun battles, others had holes in the walls where large-calibre weapons or sniper fire had struck. Some were completely demolished, clearly from explosive detonations, the dreaded booby-trapped houses. But a few houses were also burnt, with blackened exteriors and gutted interiors. On most of these houses there were anti-daesh slogans and PMU graffiti. No civilians were in sight, and this was also the case for al-Dour across the river, but families had returned to Mkesheifa near by.
We moved further north, past the airport and inside the city limits adjacent to the highway and the river, to the Provincial Council building overlooking the city centre, that was now a temporary forward operating base for the FP. There we met with Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, overall Commander of the Federal Police, who answered several questions on the operations. He explained that the Hashd were all retaining their current positions but were not moving forward or participating in offensives while the coalition airstrikes were taking place. His FP units were now operating from south Tikrit, the army were operating from the north and northwest (from Camp Speicher and the university), and the PMU held the east.
We climbed up to the roof of the building but were warned not to stay too long as daesh snipers could target us easily. Lt Gen Jawdat’s car had been hit by a sniper earlier in the morning but no damage was done. We could see almost the entire city centre from this position but the routes into it were too open making a vehicle approach risky. We could see the teaching hospital in the Shishen area directly ahead of us, and behind that we could just make out the tops of the Republican palaces complex. After a few moments a colonel asked us to come down as they intercepted daesh radio traffic that ordered our position to be targeted. This was almost the frontline and we could see heavy weaponry close to our position. We were hurried out of the site and moved back south to a safer location.
Estimates of daesh inside Tikrit were around 800, and the few families inside the city belonged to daesh members. Saddam’s palaces were linked by underground tunnels and these were being used by daesh to avoid air strikes and move freely across the town thus slowing down the ISF advance. The biggest obstacle by far was the massive amounts of IEDs that had been laid down. Not enough engineering corps had been deployed thus far and the PMU had tried to dismantle these with basic skills but ended up making a mess. While on the roof of the building we saw several artillery strikes launch from nearby but these were steady and not intensive. The advantage of coalition airstrikes is that they were more accurate and could deploy bunker-busting bombs to destroy tunnels. Iraqi air force jets were also striking daesh (we saw 2 Sukhoi jets overhead) but these, alongside Nighthunter helicopters, and the artillery guns, only struck verified targets to avoid large-scale damage. But my feeling was that these strikes, alongside the coalition strikes, were not intensive enough to change the situation dramatically.