The Paper Tiger of the Tigris: How ISIS Took Tikrit Without a Fight
Before a shot was fired, rumors of ISIS led Iraqi forces to flee Tikrit. As the army fights to retake the city, it’s up against a force made more powerful by the initial retreat.
Around 2 p.m. on Wednesday the 11th of June, ISIS forces entered the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, in a small vanguard of just 30 unarmored trucks without firing a shot. This underwhelming force was a far cry from the horde of ISIS fighters the soldiers and policemen of the city feared would come swarming out of the desert. That fear of ISIS had more to do with the fall of Tikrit, than anything the group actually did inside the city. Fear alone was enough to induce surrender and retreat.
In a province with tens of thousands of Iraq Security Forces, Tikrit, the provincial capital, was seized without a fight.
The story of ISIS’s advances in Iraq has been distorted from the start, colored by the group’s own self-serving mythology and by the Iraqi government’s attempts to conceal the rapid breakdown of its security forces. Just as ISIS has tried to claim sole credit for its victories, obscuring the role played by other members of the broad Sunni insurgency, they have exploited the Iraqi security forces failures as signs of their own strength.
The truth, revealed through interviews with locals and Iraqi security forces, is that the ISIS was far from invincible. The group might have been contained early on, before it advanced on Baghdad and foreign powers, including the U.S., were called to rescue Iraq, if the Iraqi security forces had been willing to fight. The collapse of Baghdad’s army has made ISIS vastly more powerful, every surrender moving the myth of ISIS’s strength closer to reality.
Testimony of police and local sources who witnessed the fall of Tikrit, reveals ISIS was far weaker than previously believed when they swept through the region as Iraqi Security Forces were on the verge of collapse before the offensive began. However, with the momentum of these past two weeks, the augmentation of ISIS by local fighters and prisoners released from anti-terrorism prisons, and the spoils gained from the remains of 7 collapsed Iraqi Army divisions what was once a far less substantial ISIS force is now a formidable conventional army. The ISIS force Baghdad now faces is far stronger than the one it failed to confront only weeks ago.
The account that follows, chronicling the fall of Tikrit and rise of ISIS relies on the testimony of an Iraqi police officer that served in the city and was privy to the decision-making and orders given by high ranking officers. He saw, from the inside, how the security forces began to come apart before any shots were fired. The Daily Beast also spoke with other Iraqis who gave their own stories of the ISIS advance. All of them, fearing reprisals from ISIS forces and their allies, asked that their names not be used to protect their safety.
Before ISIS actually started advancing on their positions in Tikrit, it was the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, that triggered the first wave of desertions among security forces. According to a Tikriti police officer, security forces there received word that 3,000 fighters had poured into Mosul to support groups already in the city. They knew that ISIS had captured the city, but no one had a clear picture of exactly how it had happened. What the soldiers and police of Tikrit did know was that Mosul had more soldiers and armored vehicles than they did and it folded after just three days of fighting. Already shaken by the takeover of Mosul in the north, the Tikriti forces were also aware that ISIS operated freely in the expansive desert west of Tikrit as it was too large for the Iraqi Army to control. They knew that ISIS was coming and feared the assault would arrive without warning.
Days after the takeover of Mosul on June 9, rumor spread amongst the soldiers and police that 200 trucks with heavy machineguns, loaded with ISIS’s most battle-hardened soldiers were coming for Tikrit.
On paper, the forces in Tikrit should have been more than adequate to repel even a force of this size. Three police ‘regiments’ of 400 policemen each were dedicated to the city of Tikrit alone, including a heavily armed SWAT force. Most were seasoned officers who had been battling ISIS and the former Ba’athist Naqshbandi for years. Outside of the city at FOB Speicher, a former U.S, army base, were three brigades of the Iraqi army whose primary role was to protect the vast pipelines of the province from insurgent attacks. Also stationed at Speicher were attack helicopters and a 700 man Iraqi Special Forces battalion to support them
Jessica Lewis, an expert on Iraq’s insurgent groups at the Institute for the Study of War, estimates that out of the approximately 10,000 Iraqi security forces assigned to Salahaddin province, where Tikrit is located, there were 5,000-6,000 present when ISIS began its advance.
“The Iraqi Army in the north was a hollow force. Baghdad had ignored the security forces in the north and allowed them to atrophy,” Lewis said. “There were a lot of people on the books who weren’t actually showing up to work,” she added.
The Iraqi security forces had the numbers on their side and tactically they had the advantage of defending fortified positions from an attacking force that would be vulnerable as it approached over the area’s flat plains. But the soldiers and police there were weaker than their numbers suggested. They were poorly organized and crippled by corrupt and ineffective leadership. And for all of the experience the Tikriti forces had fighting ISIS and it’s predecessors in the past and hunting down terrorists, none of that had prepared them to contest the advance of a rival army.
Salahaddin is an internal province of Iraq, and its force was tailored for counterinsurgency. It had no tanks or heavily armored vehicles for a conventional battlefield. Its Humvees and trucks with their heavy machineguns and RPGs would be on even terms with an ISIS force that had looted Mosul’s armories. But with an additional brigade south of the city with 150 armored Humvees, Iraqi Security Forces around Tikrit still vastly outnumbered the expected ISIS column.
Under emergency measures, all of the police of Tikrit were called to duty on Monday June 9 to defend the city from an attack that did not come that day. By Tuesday morning it was clear to the hundreds of police in Tikrit that the Iraqi Army was not coming out from its garrisons and were leaving the police to fight the ISIS approach by themselves, a police force with only 6 working armored Humvees against an unknown mounted army of jihadists.
Most police saw the defense of the city without army support as a suicide mission, well aware that supporters of the ISIS approach were inside the city already providing intelligence and waiting to attack. By Tuesday, the desertions began in droves. A police commander in Bayji, the only major city between Mosul and Tikrit, called the police in Tikrit to inform them that his entire regiment, hundreds of police officers, had all deserted and he had only four policeman left with him. By Tuesday night, ISIS was in control of Bayji, a major oil refinery city that stood north between Tikrit and Mosul. The commander of the Army brigade assigned to defend Bayji had retreated to Tikrit. The majority of his brigade was presumed to have deserted. The fight for Tikrit was anticipated for the following day, but there would be no one left to make a stand.
On Wednesday morning, June 11, unable to stem the tide of mass desertion, the commander of all police in Salahaddin province, Major General Juma Al Dulaimi, went to FOB Speicher to get the Iraqi Army to deploy around Tikrit. His commander for the Tikrit area, Colonel Khalil Ramal, who had been wounded twice fighting insurgents alongside US forces in previous years, went for help to the headquarters between Tikrit and Awja, the town immediately south. Despite their appeals no reinforcements were sent to Tikrit.
ISIS vehicles appeared from the north and west of the city around 2PM. A small ISIS force of what one witness estimated to be 10 pickup trucks with mounted machineguns passed through the abandoned bridge checkpoint on the north end of town. Simultaneously, 20 ISIS trucks emerged from the western desert passing by an abandoned checkpoint on the west edge of town. The entire remaining Iraqi Army force remained holed up at FOB Speicher, north of Tikrit. The soldiers there made no efforts to maneuver and confront ISIS. They stayed behind the bases defensive walls only firing back when ISIS trucks probed their perimeter.
The analysis of Jessica Lewis, who has studied Iraq’s insurgent groups and the ISIS campaign, matches the account given to The Daily Beast by the Iraqi police officer. “ISIS didn’t roll a force down the road from Mosul to Tikrit,” Lewis said, “they sequenced lateral forces in, including from the desert.”
As soon as ISIS arrived in Tikrit, their first priority was to round up their enemies for slaughter.
The details of the mass surrenders at FOB Speicher are still unclear, but from the reports of Tikrit residents in the area, Iraqi Army soldiers by the hundreds walked out of FOB Speicher in civilian clothes and surrendered en masse to ISIS believing they would be let free if they did so. Perhaps events they had heard about in Mosul had convinced them this was what would happen. Instead they were marched to the Qusoor Al-Raiseeyah area in the center of Tikrit where they were sorted by hometown and religious sect. Sunnis from local provinces -- Ninewa, Salahaddin, and Anbar -- were reportedly let go. Shia soldiers and Sunnis from Baghdad and other parts of Iraq were executed in small groups throughout the afternoon, a massacre recorded by ISIS and displayed widely in the media afterward and corroborated this week by a report from Human Rights Watch. A source in the city estimated that almost a thousand soldiers were probably executed this way with their bodies thrown into the Tigris.
Beyond the weapons and supplies of Tikrit’s vanished security forces, there was another prize in the city: Three prisons that had been left abandoned by their guards, including the prison for those convicted of terrorism-related charges. Like in Mosul, all prisoners were freed and most immediately joined the ISIS force in the city, including 500 prisoners from the anti-terrorism prison, the worst of the worst, whose detentions were the work of years of careful law enforcement in the province.
A small force of police and soldiers with six armored Humvees attempted to break out of the city to the Army headquarters to the south, with the police commander among them. ISIS caught and killed most of them but a small group managed to survive and make it as far south as Dejail, a town just outside Baghdad at the town of. ISIS moved quickly into the city’s precincts to gather rosters of security personnel with their home addresses. By nightfall, ISIS patrols were roaming house to house within Tikrit to capture and execute men identified as targets. By the next day they had checkpoints on the road to Kirkuk set up with laptops to check for names of those working with the government trying to sneak out of the city.
The only real resistance the ISIS forces met in Tikrit came, not the organized security forces, but from the locals in the Alam neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris river.
Most of the men in Hayy Al Alam, as the area is known, work locally in the security forces or the government, so when ISIS arrived they organized a neighborhood force to keep them out as they expected to be massacred. With just small arms and RPGs, the men of Al Alam kept ISIS forces at bay for almost two weeks. However, many families tried to flee from Al Alam on the highway leading to Kirkuk where ISIS checkpoints identified them and took them hostage. According to a security source, 50 families were reportedly caught before ISIS informed the holdouts in Al Alam that their families would be executed if they did not surrender their weapons and allow them into the area. A helicopter from Baghdad arrived to exfiltrate the high-ranking men who were certain to be executed and the following day, the remaining men of Amal surrendered. ISIS forces arrived and seized their weapons and the hostages were released without any word yet on reprisals, but it is expected that the families of Amal will now flee at the first opportunity.
The Iraqi government had air power and resources available to rescue VIPs but left its cities under siege to fend for themselves. Baghdad’s absence has been acute throughout the fighting in the north.
The defense of Hay Al Alam, which is a stronghold of the Jaburi tribe in Tikrit, also saw the death of Iraq’s newest national hero, Umaya Naji, the Salahaddin governor’s advisor for women’s affairs and a prominent voice for women’s rights in Iraq. News and social media in Iraq have widely spread pictures of a Kalashnikov wielding Umaya, who was killed by an ISIS sniper while defending her neighborhood, as reported in Asharq Al-Awsat.
“ISIS was able to capitalize on the disconnect between Baghdad and northern provinces,” said the Iraq analyst, Lewis. “Baghdad didn’t have any idea what was going on in north, and didn’t really care.”
Throughout the early fighting, before ISIS began consolidating its gains in the north, neither the government or the military leadership in Baghdad launched any major counter-offensives against ISIS. Rather than back up its security forces under attack, Baghdad appears to have watched passively as they were routed and murdered or survived by fleeing their posts.
Saturday, June 27, the Iraqi government launched a counter-attack to take the city back. More than two weeks after ISIS captured Tikrit, the Iraqi Army pushed north from its stronghold in Baghdad, and opened an offensive to retake the city. The timing of Baghdad’s counter-attack may be connected to the recent arrival of U.S. special operations forces with access to intelligence about the size and location of ISIS forces gathered from drone reconnaissance flights.
The Iraqi army’s campaign began with air strikes in Tikrit before airlifting forces into the city and using attack helicopters to attack ISIS strongholds, according to The Washington Post. Local sources tell The Daily Beast that the army coordinated with local tribes around Tikrit to gain their support before launching the attack against ISIS.
So far, the Iraqi army’s offensive appears to have won back part of Tikrit while fighting continues in areas still under ISIS control.
Reclaiming control of the city came at a high price, with fierce fighting against ISIS forces inside Tikrit’s neighborhoods and many Iraqi Army casualties from improvised bombs (IEDs) planted in the roads that approach the city, according to local sources. One helicopter was reportedly shot down and another forced to land due to mechanical failures, resulting in several Iraqi soldiers and a Lebanese pilot being taken hostage by ISIS.
Stopping ISIS’s assault on Tikrit would never have been bloodless or easy, but the lull between the initial capture of the city and Baghdad’s response may have the fight that’s going on now even harder to win. During the two weeks that ISIS occupied Tikrit, largely uncontested, the group had time to prepare defenses, like emplacing IEDs on the roads. With the Iraqi army now back in the city it remains for them to clear the rest of Tikrit, where ISIS forces are holding out, and hold their ground against future attacks.
What is clear is that before a single ISIS truck even arrived in Tikrit, the reputation of ISIS and the stories from Mosul had already created a psychological victory for the ISIS forces. Events in the Alam neighborhood indicate that against a determined resistance by a handful of neighborhood fighters, ISIS forces had to resort to hostage taking to prevail. From the story of Tikrit’s fall, if it can even be called a battle, it is not ISIS’s strength that appears so alarming but the collapsing morale of the Iraqi Army. It remains to be seen in Iraq’s remaining units, how widespread this paralysis reaches, and how steep a price the Iraqi Army will pay retaking Iraq’s cities after its early failures.