Islamic State Fighters Hold Tikrit As Military Assault Enters Second Week

Mar 9, 2015
Originally published on March 9, 2015 8:07 pm

Islamic State fighters are mounting stiff resistance in Tikrit, Iraq, as Iraqi troops and Shiite militias, some of them backed by the Iranian government, join in on the assault on the city. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, was in Baghdad as the Pentagon backed away from plans to take the city of Mosul, Iraq, from Islamic State militants.

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The top American military officer said today that Iraq's military is not ready to help the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. General Martin Dempsey is visiting Baghdad, but just 80 miles to the northwest in Tikrit, militias backed by Iran are doing battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. We're going to talk more now about the U.S. military strategy in Iraq with NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And Tom, let's start with General Dempsey's visit to Iraq. It sounds like he was quite critical of Iraq's military. What did he have to say?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, of course there have been hundreds of American trainers there working with the Iraqi military for months. And General Dempsey said when some of those Iraqi units show up for training, they don't have all the soldiers they're supposed to have or their equipment. And the general went on to say that besides that, the Iraqi military needs better commanders, something others have complained about for months. And General Dempsey said, listen, it's the Iraqi government that needs to fix all this.

BLOCK: It sounds like we've been hearing this for years, Tom.

BOWMAN: Quite some time.

BLOCK: And let's talk about the implications of that because the American strategy for targeting ISIS is relying on U.S. air power but local ground forces - so, in this case, the Iraqi military. If they're not up to the job, what happens to the strategy?

BOWMAN: Well, a lot of defense analysts say that the strategy is a problem. To defeat any enemy, you need a force on the ground to seize and hold territory. Now a number of us were told recently by U.S. military officials about an operation to recapture the city of Mosul. He said they're looking at April or May. Now it's being postponed, and no sense of when that might happen, which might be why General Dempsey today called for, quote, "strategic patience," in this operation.

BLOCK: Yeah. And meantime, as we mentioned, there is an operation underway to retake a different city from ISIS - the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown - that operation, now in its second week. What's the status?

BOWMAN: Well, there are plenty of Iranian advisers there, also supporting Shia militias in that operation. They're pushing in now from the east and the south. They're meeting some resistance from the Islamic State fighters who are using roadside bombs, car bombs and snipers. Now, the Iranian-backed force could try to enter the city in the coming days, we're told. But keep in mind, Tikrit is largely a Sunni area, so even if the Shia militias are successful, there's a concern that this effort could increase sectarian tensions in the country.

BLOCK: Yeah. What are you hearing? How concerned is the U.S. that Iran is playing such a significant role in this fight for Tikrit?

BOWMAN: Well, General Dempsey met in Baghdad with Iraq's defense minister, and this came up. The Iraqi minister said, listen, we'll take help from whoever we can get it. This is a serious fight on our hands. And Dempsey said he wondered, for his part, whether Iran's roll is a short-term help in a crisis or whether this represents Iran trying to gain even greater influence in Iraq in the long-term. Now, part of the problem here, of course, is there's no U.S. combat forces on the ground. President Obama said quite bluntly, no boots on the ground.

BLOCK: And is - General Dempsey's point then is that that limits U.S. influence - opens the door to Iran?

BOWMAN: That's right. There are American trainers now but not combat forces. And the U.S. is doing, of course, most of the airstrikes there. But even there, they're holding back. There are growing complaints, I'm hearing from American pilots, that it can take hours to get approval for a target, and that delay can mean the target just disappears. But General Dempsey said, listen, the U.S. has to be very careful not to harm civilians in this effort. And he also said that, you know, if there is a problem with civilian casualties, the Islamic State could use that for propaganda - one more reason this effort against the Islamic State in Iraq will take a lot longer than expected.

BLOCK: OK, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.