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The current battle for Tikrit has stalled, as the Iraqi military and affiliated Iraqi Shia and Sunni militias have failed to expel ensconced ISIL fighters. Conflicting reports have emerged over the role US airpower should play in this battle, with the US, the Iraqi military, and militias debating amongst themselves. This debate occurs during a battle replete with both tactical and symbolic significance. The fate of this battle will determine Iraq’s future. It is also a battle for Iraq’s past.
Tikrit has been etched in both the Iraqi and international imagination as Saddam Hussein’s hometown. However, the city and its inhabitants deserve a place within the greater history of Iraq, beyond enjoying notoriety for being Saddam’s birthplace. The story of Tikrit explains the rise of Saddam Hussein.
Technically, Saddam Hussein was actually born in a village outside of Tikrit, al-Awja. Tikrit’s association with state under Saddam can be traced to a socio-economic shift around the 1930s, affecting both the city and its environs.
Situated on the Tigris River, Tikritis had been traditionally connected to the manufacture of the kalak, a small boat used to traverse the river. They found their way of life obsolete with the introduction of steam boats and had to find a new livelihood.
Tikriti men had to find work by migrating to the capital, Baghdad, the fate of most of Iraq’s dislocated rural population.
During this period, an officer from a prominent, land-owning Tikriti family, Mawlud Mukhlis, encouraged his townsmen to join the military or its academies, as a means of creating a sympathetic network within the armed forces.
A Tikriti who joined the military during this period was Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, who would later rise through the ranks, becoming a general, and leading a military coup in Iraq in 1968. A younger cousin of his, Saddam Hussein, would take part in the coup, eventually seizing the presidency for himself in 1979. Both men were Tikritis and members of the Baath Party.
‘Tikriti Republic of Iraq’
Saddam placed his relatives in high positions of power, and since they all came from Tikrit, the city would be associated with his rule thereafter. Other townspeople, not related to Saddam, did become prominent in the higher echelons of the state, to the point that critics called Iraq, Jamhuriyyat Al-Iraq al-Tikritiyya or the “Tikriti Republic of Iraq”.
Tikrit now will be forever marred by its association with its most famous son. It is what makes the battle for Tikrit symbolic, and also what motivates the fighters combatting ISIL mete out punishments on its civilian population.
However, being a Tikriti did not guarantee one’s survival in Baathist Iraq. One of its townsmen, Hardan al-Tikriti, an Iraqi Air Force commander and potential rival to Saddam, was assassinated on the latter’s orders.
Even Tikritis, before the fall of Saddam Hussein, communicated to me how uneasy they were about the notoriety they garnered by virtue of association with Saddam Hussein. Saddam, in their view represented the uncultured, unrefined rural countryside taking over the state.
However, Tikrit now will be forever marred by its association with its most famous son. It is what makes the battle for Tikrit symbolic, and also what motivates the fighters combatting ISIL mete out punishments on its civilian population. While unconfirmed, in the battle for Tikrit’s past, these forces demolished the tomb of Saddam Hussein.
Ironically, Saddam Hussein’s investments in Tikrit should have made the recent battle for the city relatively easy. In 2004, I remember entering Tikriti on a major avenue bisecting the city. The University of Tikrit was larger than the town itself.
It was due to Saddam’s investment in his hometown that made it an unsuitable urban battleground in Iraq’s post-2003 insurgency. Wide avenues and large spaces did not favour ambushes, unlike the narrow and winding streets of Falluja, which provided the perfect cover for the Iraqi insurgents.
Current battle for Tikrit
The current battle for Tikrit is the second attempt to dislodge ISIL from the city. Iraqi armed forces had tried to retake Tikrit from ISIL in the summer of 2014 but were repulsed, taking heavy casualties in the process. This second round in the battle for Tikrit has proved just as deadly for Iraqi forces, with the campaign losing momentum due to the relatively high casualty count.
Failing to take the city the second-time around will serve as an embarrassment for the Iraqi state, and it will most likely invest every effort in this campaign. The battle was seen in its initial states as a rehearsal for the looming, more daunting battle for Mosul. However Tikrit is now no longer just an urban centre on the way to Mosul. Tikrit itself has become a prize, part of a larger battle to lift the nation’s morale.
Tikrit is also symbolic of how the US-Iranian modus vivendi has faltered during this battle, demonstrating that this is not only a fight between the Iraqi state trying to reclaim a captured city from a non-state actor, but also a staging ground between how Iran and the US will shape Iraq’s future.
Ironically, Iran and the US appear to have come to an agreement on keeping US airstrikes out of the battle, for different motivations. Iran and its affiliated militias to want to seize Tikrit without any US air support, so that they can solely claim credit for the victory, and giving Iran a high-profile victory in the fight against ISIL. Iran’s strategy, along with the Iraqi Shia militias is to take the city, district-by-district, street-by-street, despite incurring high casualties.
US air support
The US appears to have acquiesced to this strategy. By not providing air support, the US is allowing the Iranian and Shia militia forces to incur heavy casualties in Tikrit, which would deplete their manpower and momentum, allowing America’s preferred partner, the Iraqi military, to continue the fight against ISIL. The Iranian and Shia forces had successes earlier in taking control of smaller, ISIL-held towns in the Iraqi province of Diyala.
Tikrit, which has garnered international attention, could provide for the US an Iranian-Shia militia coalition, bogged down in fighting for the city, with its ranks depleted from the battle. Indirectly this would serve America’s interest in blunting what appears to be an inexorable rise of Iranian influence in Iraq.
In between the US and Iran, stands the Iraqi government, which seeks to recast the battle for Tikrit as a national one, while reigning in the abuses conducted by the Shia militias against the civilian, Arab Sunni population.
As the battle for Tikrit has passed its third week, it has emerged as Iraq’s equivalent to Syria’s Kobane, with the roles reversed. In this case ISIL is not conducting the siege, but are now the besieged. Kobane emerged as a symbol of reversing ISIL’s momentum in Syria, with the almost complete destruction of the town in the process. Tikrit now could suffer the same fate.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.