Shia Militias Suspend Tikrit Offensive in Opposition to U.S. Airstrikes

Shiite fighter
A Shi'ite fighter from Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) smokes next to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's palaces in the Iraqi town of Ouja, near Tikrit March 17, 2015. Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Thousands of Tehran-backed Shiite militiamen leading the assault against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Tikrit have suspended their advance in opposition to Washington's air strike campaign, according to officials and analysts.

The battle for the city, some 160km (100 miles) north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, has seen a force of approximately 30,000 fighters, from the Iraqi army, Shia and Sunni militias attempt to recapture the area taken by the radical Islamist group in their sweep across northern Iraq last summer.

The operation was being overseen by Iran's notorious former Quds Force spymaster Qasem Soleimani but militia officials have confirmed that they will not continue in the Iraqi operation while Washington conducts air strikes, a move that has divided the forces fighting to recapture the Sunni-majority city.

"All the popular mobilization [coalition of Shia and Sunni militiamen] will refuse to fight until the American airstrikes stop," Moeen al-Kadhimi, head of the popular mobilization committee on Baghdad's provincial council told the Washington Post. "Let them try to do it without us. America is just trying to steal our victory."

A spokesman for the prominent Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Naim Abboudi, told the outlet that the fighters "will be ready to launch an offensive when the coalition forces stop bombing. We are suspending activities." An official from the Kitaeb Hezbollah militia also threatened to consider U.S. planes a target, claiming that the unit's fighters "have the capabilities to shoot them down".

However, Sajad Jiyad, Iraq expert and director of research at the independent consultancy Integrity, speaking from Baghdad, says that the militia's anti-American rhetoric is bluster and the operation will go ahead once air strikes end as Baghdad needs the militias.

"They are not going to do that. At the end of the day, the coalition was invited by the prime minister. It works for them to say that stuff but it is not going to happen," he noted. "There are only about 4,000 left of the Iraqi army [in Tikrit] so they need these militias for the ground offensive."

Contrastingly, Washington has claimed that the militias absence in Tikrit was a requirement for their air strikes to begin. General Lloyd Austin, the head of the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that 4,000 Iraqi forces were conducting "clearing operations" in the city without the support of the militias.

"It's the way the forces went about trying to do this," Austin told the committee in reference to the stalled offensive. "The forces were not controlled by the government of Iraq, there was no coherent scheme of manoeuvres, command and control, and didn't have precision fires to support this effort."

The Shia-majority Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) spokesman Karim al-Nuri predicted it would be captured in "no more than 72 hours" earlier this month. However, despite holding a numerical advantage over ISIS, the Iraqi assault on the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein has taken longer than expected, now in its fourth week.

Iraq's defence minister claimed Monday 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.

It is believed that the capture of Tikrit would set-up an assault on Mosul, Iraq's second city which the terror group captured in its sweep across northern Iraq last summer. Last month, a U.S. Central Command (Centcom) official said that Iraqi forces were being trained in order to launch an advance on the city - which sits in close proximity to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region - as soon as April or May.