The Iraqi Military Just Launched Its Biggest Attack on the Islamic State Yet. Here's Why.
The news: Iraqi forces Wednesday morning moved into the Islamic State group-held city of Tikrit in their largest offensive effort to date.
With the help of Iranian officials, 30,000 troops from Iraqi military and Shia militias launched an attack on the city to reclaim a strategic post on the roadway between Mosul, the Islamic State group's base of northern Iraq operations, and Baghdad, Iraq's capital and most populated city.
In the ongoing struggle for the city, Iraqi forces spent the last 10 days fighting IS militants for the towns outside Tikrit, including al-Alam and al-Dour along the Tigris River, reported Reuters. They've managed to retake strategic points street by street, like the Tikrit Military Hospital and much of the north, making Iraqi officials reportedly confident they'll take full control by the end of the day.
The background: IS fighters took Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, last June during the northern Iraq offensive. In August, the Iraqi government tried to retake the city but was thwarted by IS insurgents.
As the IS group's major stronghold, Mosul was the original target Iraqi forces planned to retake by spring. But from a strategic position, the offensive Wednesday proved to be a major stepping stone in that effort.
Why this is so important: The battle for Tikrit plays a significant role in the war on IS. From what we've seen in Iraq and Syria, the group takes control of areas like roads and travel routes between cities. Controlling Tikrit is key for IS to move troops between its bases of operation, especially to its stronghold in northern Iraq.
It also symbolizes a turning point. Taking a strategic city before moving on to Mosul, which was the plan in the first place, is a push in the right direction to Iraqi Sunnis who don't know where to put their loyalty — either in the Iraqi government, or the Islamic State's Sharia law-abiding and crucifixion-appreciating caliphate.
As Vali Nasr, dean of the School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a former State Department official, told NPR, "If the Iraqi government fails here, it emboldens ISIS. ... And it makes it much more difficult for the government that's been beaten by ISIS in the battlefield to persuade Sunnis elsewhere in Iraq to rise up against a brutal force like ISIS."
Instilling confidence in the Iraqi people to side with their government over IS is hard enough. Hours after Iraqi and Shia forces gained ground in Tikrit, IS militants set off 21 car bombs in the city of Ramadi, two hours south of Tikrit, just to show they could still do damage while losing battles elsewhere.
Though it would be easy for the United States to airstrike the region, U.S. Army Gen. and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey has previously said, "Carpet bombing through Iraq is not the answer." Not only could such a move reinforce IS propaganda, but since most of the IS operations are held in urban areas and roads, the civilian-to-extremist fatality ratio could be dire.
But it's bigger than that. Iraqi troops are trained with American military strategy. As Nasr says, if the fight is lost in Tikrit, it makes American tactics lose credibility. Of course, what works for a world superpower military might not work for a contingent of Iraqi and militia troops. And if that proves to be the case, it means the United States will have to pour troops back in and engage directly in the fighting — if for no other reason than to retain faith that it can.