Tikrit Offensive Stalls Due to 'Hundreds' of ISIS Explosives

Tikrit ISIS Iraq Islamic State Mosul
Iraqi security forces display Islamic State ammunition in al-Alam Salahuddin province March 17, 2015. Reuters / Thaier Al-Sudani

The offensive on the ISIS-held Iraqi city of Tikrit has slowed to a halt because of hundreds of explosives planted in the city's centre as the terror group await a final assault by Iraqi forces, according to experts.

The Iraqi offensive on the city, supported by the Shia-majority Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), had initial success, with a number of towns on the city's outskirts captured quickly and PMU spokesman, Karim al-Nuri, declaring the city would be liberated in "no more than 72 hours" earlier this month.

Yet, the assault on the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has taken longer than expected, now entering its fourth week. Iraq's defence minister today claimed that the army has slowed down its operation to prevent potential casualties which could occur if they rushed the assault on the explosive-laden city centre.

"When we see that the time is right for the Tikrit alliance, we will storm in as quickly as possible," he said. "Tikrit is under full siege. We are taking caution to not take any losses and to protect civilians in the city."

"The terrorists are surrounded inside the city and their morale is low. When the right moment comes, we will storm the city without any resistance or losses," he added.

However, Sajad Jiyad, Iraq expert and research director at the independent consultancy Integrity speaking from Baghdad, warned that Iraqi forces were spread too thin to dismantle the number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) concealed by ISIS, with security operations continuing against the terror group in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi.

"The Iraqi army is struggling because it doesn't have the capacity to continue operations everywhere," Jiyad says. "The most important part is the engineer corps, the people who dismantle the IEDs and clear the way for soldiers to go in. There's just not enough of them in Tikrit."

As Baghdad's forces edge closer to the city centre, the battle for central Tikrit will see the Iraqis involved in complex street-to-street fights with ISIS, battling against the terror group's boobytraps, IEDs and suicide bombers, Jiyad adds.

"[Iraqi forces] just don't have the capability to dismantle the hundreds of IEDs that are all over central Tikrit. It's very dangerous territory. So it's a technical issue," he warns.

Iran's major general Qasem Soleimani, the former leader of the elite Quds Force, the special operations arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is currently in Iraq as an advisor to oversee operations against ISIS and provide the vital link to Tehran's material support for the Shia militias on the ground. However, some in Baghdad's coalition government have warned against Tehran's growing influence in Iraq and the assault on ISIS.

Iraqi vice president Iyad Allawi, speaking to Sky News in the Iraqi capital today called Iranian involvement in Iraq's affairs "unacceptable" and claimed that they were attempting to make Baghdad the capital of the Persian empire.

"I think the role of any regional power or any power in Iraq's affairs is unacceptable," he said. He added that Iran "sending officers to fight and to lead, and declaring that Baghdad is becoming the capital of the Persian empire, is unacceptable".

Tikrit is situated on the Tigris river, approximately 95 miles (150 kilometres) north of the capital Baghdad, and would provide Iraqi forces a strategic launchpad from which to attack ISIS-held Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, further to the north.

The city was the site of mass executions of Iraqi forces by ISIS militants at the time of its capture last June when the terror group launched its march across northern Iraq, capturing key Sunni areas. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report claimed that approximately 770 captured soldiers were killed after the terror group took control of former U.S. military base in the city, Camp Speicher, in executions which HRW advisor Fred Abrahams described as "crimes against humanity".