Inside the Caliphate

The Iraqi Army’s Alamo: Standoff in Tikrit

ISIS fighters say they captured Camp Speicher in Tikrit on Friday. The Iraqi army says the vital outpost is under its control. In this web of propaganda, who’s telling the truth?

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Since Tikrit fell to ISIS forces in early June, recapturing the city—Saddam Hussein’s hometown—has been a centerpiece of the Iraqi Army’s campaign. But despite Baghdad’s efforts, pouring soldiers and resources into the battle there, the fighting has dragged on for weeks with only fleeting gains. At stake in Sunni-dominated Tirkit is the Iraqi government’s ability to defeat ISIS and retake the country. So far they have little to show for their efforts.

The outcome in Tikrit will be profound but following the course of the battle there is exceptionally difficult. Even determining whether it’s the Iraqi Army or ISIS that controls the city at any given time, can be a fraught and labored process.

Adding to the fog of war here, there is a blizzard of propaganda that falls in thick sheets from government and ISIS sources alike.

On Friday, multiple news reports claimed that ISIS had won a major victory, seizing control of a vital army base outside of Tikrit and killing or capturing the hundreds of soldiers stationed there. If true, ISIS’s capture of Camp Speicher would signal a crucial turning point in the battle for the city and a humiliating setback for the Iraqi Army.

But the reports are false according to multiple Iraqi sources, who say Speicher was attacked on Friday but that ISIS never entered the base. According to an Iraqi Army soldier, who said he is currently stationed at the base: “Ten suicide bombers tried to blow themselves up at the gate so 15 more ISIS fighters in support could enter the base but we killed all of them. Only one Iraqi soldier was killed.”

By phone on Saturday the Iraqi soldier said he was speaking from inside the base. “Yes, I am here at Speicher now,” he said, “the army is still here, we never left.” A member of the Golden Division, a special unit founded to guard Hussein, the soldier said that he has been stationed at Speicher for the last 20 days. ISIS attacks on the base are a regular occurrence he said, and Friday’s was not especially devastating. “It’s just ISIS rumors,” he said, referring to the group’s claims that it seized the base.

A second source, a translator, spoke with a friend living on the base on Saturday, a day after Speicher was supposedly overrun. “I talked to him a half hour ago,” he said “it’s absolutely under the control of the Iraqi Army. There are about 2,000 soldiers inside the base.” Those soldiers, he said, included volunteers from Shia militia like the Peace Brigades and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, alongside the regular army.

A high-ranking officer in Baghdad’s military operations center said only that “Speicher is under the control of the army and the volunteers. ISIS never entered the base.” He declined to discuss further what he said were classified matters relating to the base’s defense.

Without being inside Speicher or peering above the base’s walls, it is impossible to say for sure who controls it. But one clue that ISIS has not taken it over is the lack of documentation on their social media accounts. If ISIS had really killed hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, destroyed army helicopters, and captured a major base, as they claim, the Twitter-obsessed group would likely be tweeting the evidence and basking in the images of carnage. So far, this hasn’t materialized.

Speicher may not have been overrun but that’s hardly a victory for the Iraqi Army or a sign that things are going well for them in Tikrit.

As the Beast’s Andrew Slater reported in June, Tikrit was first abandoned by the army before they decided to come back and retake it. “In a province with tens of thousands of Iraq Security Forces,” Slater wrote, “Tikrit, the provincial capital, was seized without a fight.”

In early June, when an ISIS force of only 30 unarmored vehicles chased thousands of security forces out of Tikrit, Speicher was the one key piece of terrain the army held onto in the area. And while ISIS hasn’t taken it yet, the military concedes that the base is under constant attack and threatened with losing its main supply line if ISIS cuts off the main highway that runs north from Baghdad.

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Meanwhile, the Iraqi government touts victories in Tirkit on a steady basis while ISIS regularly claims to have slaughtered government forces and taken control of the city. The truth seems closer to a deadlock. The Iraqi Army has the manpower and weaponry to defeat ISIS in open skirmishes but is often fighting from a defense. While the army tries to retake Tikrit, it’s forced to counterattack and hold its ground against an enemy that likes to ambush and then fade away into the sympathetic or cowed elements among the local population.

Nothing so far has broken this stalemate. The addition of thousands of new volunteers to the Iraqi Army, many of them belonging to Shia militias, has not changed the situation. Sectarian loyalties aside, the volunteers have little training and are no match for their ISIS counterparts, experienced fighters and veterans of past battles in Syria and Iraq.

The army’s inability to control the territory around Tikrit gives ISIS more time to consolidate its gains in Iraq’s northern regions, and makes the prospect of their eventual recapture that much grimmer for Baghdad. For now, it seems that no one fully controls Tikrit, and the city remains a battlefield.