I read in several media reports that the battle for Tikrit was not going well, that hundreds of men from the PMU had been killed. I arranged to visit Samarra, less than an hour’s drive from the frontlines in Tikrit to see for myself what the situation was.
We left in a convoy of 3 armored vehicles from central Baghdad at 9.15am, making our way onto the main highway that connects Baghdad with Mosul. At almost regular 5km intervals there were checkpoints manned by either Interior or Defence ministry forces. Some checkpoints leading onto or off the main highway were manned by PMU under various paramilitary group names. Evidence of battles and explosions could be seen once we passed Taji and leading up to Dujail. Shops, homes, garages and other buildings adjacent to the highway were blackened, flattened, and pockmarked. But these were leftovers from last summer and the security situation seemed to be normal as labourers, farmers, and vehicles delivering goods were moving in and out of villages and towns freely. After passing the road to Balad and past Ishaqi the landscape became more open with little sign of any violence having taken place.
Parts of the highway had diversions from one side to the other because repairs to the tarmac were about to be carried out, treating the road surfaces damaged by IEDs. But overall the road was in good condition, we were able to drive at speeds around 70mph in most parts, and the checkpoints were quick to search and release vehicles.
We arrived in Samarra at 11am to a city busy with activity but more resembling an army base than a pilgrimage destination. Banners, flags, portraits, and posters were covering every last bit of available space on billboards and street signs. Clearly this was the operational headquarters of the PMU and while the various groups coordinated under this umbrella, they also had their own distinct identities. The road leading to the Askari shrine was heavy with human traffic, and on the side were huge pots of food being cooked by the various mawakib that had setup to serve both pilgrims and the military. The people walking to the shrines were a mix of domestic and foreign pilgrims, MoD/MoI/PMU soldiers, local and central government officials, and clerics from various towns of southern Iraq.
After visiting the shrine and discussing with officials there the developments in the rebuilding of the shrine and the surrounding area, we made our way to the Salahudin Operations Command via the main hospital. At the hospital we met with the general manager and went to see the morgue where the dead were stored temporarily. I asked specifically about the numbers of dead who were brought in from the Tikrit operations and the numbers were much lower than what was reported. They counted in the waves that came due to various operations and in the past week they had 28, 7, 5, 11, 3, and 6. Additionally they had some individually recorded names but the total for the entire week was below 100. I mentioned that the same hospital was a source for a report that 100 bodies a day were passing through it but the manager dismissed it immediately because the refrigerators they had could only store about half that amount and had asked the Health ministry for more in order to increase their capacity as they were trying to avoid refusing non-military dead who were being brought in from other areas of Salahudin as people began to return to their homes.
At the Operational command centre we had a quick meeting with the field commanders who updated us on the Tikrit operation and recent security events in the province. While I can’t discuss the details of what was said there was confirmation that the Tikrit operations had been deliberately slowed down by the Army leadership because they wanted to limit losses in securing the city centre which was booby trapped almost in its entirety. Again the talk of hundreds of losses was dismissed but there was a consensus that daesh were still dangerous though under siege. Interestingly there were small scale operations still running across the province because daesh had pockets who were operating hit and run attacks. Mortar strikes and sniper fire were the main tactics that served to cause a nuisance and prevent more troops being moved forward to Hawija and Baiji.
Before returning to Baghdad we spoke to some residents of Samarra. Some complained of the militarization of the city and that the local economy had ground to a halt because of it. Others wanted their homes and businesses to be purchased by the Shi’a endowment or the federal government so they could move elsewhere. Most were bitterly angry at daesh and said that their families and tribes suffered more than anyone else but that the government did not recognise this. These were people who felt they had no support from anywhere but were looking for a reason to be proud again of their country. I did ask if they had been mistreated by the various PMU operating in the city but their answers were limited to the difficulty of movement. My queries about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were met with reluctance and indifference, with one person saying this was another shame being imprinted on Sunni Arabs so they would continue to be viewed with suspicion.
The drive back began at 3.30pm and we arrived at our original destination in central Baghdad at 5pm. I stated on 2 March when the Tikrit operations began that 1 month would be a good, optimistic target to aim for in terms of securing the city and that it would take well over that time for the rest of the province. With 10 days of that target left I still feel this is a good target and can see no reason for panic.
I also saw an opportunity for the government in winning back the people of Samarra and areas like it but unfortunately the focus is almost exclusively on the military front at the moment.