Fear of atrocities rises as Iraq launches an operation to take Tikrit from ISIS

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. The US military has spent so much time and money and blood in Iraq, some placenames there feel very familiar--Fallujah, for example, or the city of Tikrit, which also looms large in the narrative that is America’s war in Iraq. Tikrit was Saddam Hussein’s hometown--Saddam Hussein al-TikrÄ«tÄ« is his full name, after all. You’ll recall that it was in Tikrit that Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003 and it was also the scene for numerous attacks on American soldiers during the occupation. But now, even after the US has pulled out, Tikrit still is making headlines. Last June, the town fell into the hands of ISIS extremists. Now Baghdad says it’s trying to take it back. The BBC’s Ahmed Maher is on the line from Baghdad. So, previous government attacks on Tikrit have failed pretty miserably. What’s different this time?


Ahmed Maher: This is the third military operation launched by the government in a bid to recapture Tikrit. This is the largest military operation; the government says up to 30,000 troops backed by shia militias and fighters from different communities are joining forces to recapture the city. They are also backed by Iraqi military jets and artillery. So, this is completely different and it’s very important for the morale of security and government forces.


Werman: This has to be a huge task for the Iraqi army--it collapsed pretty badly before the ISIS offensive last summer which took Mosul. Who is actually fighting for Baghdad right now? Is it regular army? Is it tribal militias?


Maher: The collapse is absolutely right--it raised many eyebrows really last summer because they handed Mosul, which is Iraq’s second largest city, over very easily and that’s why shia militias came to the fore. This is a very big concern as a point of fact because the involvement of shia forces, who are the main supporters of the government forces in the Tikrit operation, could be a very risky move because in the past couple of months there were reports verified by Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, about abuses and human rights violations committed by shia militias in towns seized by the shia forces in the province of Diyala to the east of Baghdad. So, these are real concerns.


Werman: We’re hearing from the Pentagon that they are not providing air support in this operation because they say it was not requested. With all these Iraqi forces focusing on ISIS in Tikrit, what’s the resistance that ISIS is putting up?


Maher: We hear reports but we couldn’t verify them from independent sources that ISIS has started to entrench their positions around the heart of Tikrit. Also, we hear reports that they are using hostages as human shields.


Werman: The operation that we’ve been hearing a lot about is the one supposedly being planned by the US and Iraqi officials to retake Mosul. Is the fight in Tikrit, as far as the Iraqi military is concerned, is it a kind of dress rehearsal for how they might perform in Mosul?


Maher: It is a big test really, and it could be a game changer with no exaggeration, because if you look at the map of Iraq, Mosul is in the north and Tikrit is very central, it’s northwest of the capital Baghdad. In order to advance to the north, you can’t go there without capturing first the central parts. So, they’re fighting in Tikrit but their eyes are on Mosul.


Werman: That was the BBC’s Ahmed Maher in Baghdad.