Monday, March 9, 2015 - 17:12
Baghdad: The top US military officer arrived Monday in Baghdad urging patience in the battle against the Islamic State group as Iraqi forces pressed their largest operation yet against the jihadists.
Some 30,000 men have been involved in a week-old operation to recapture Tikrit, one of the jihadists` main hubs since they overran large parts of Iraq nine months ago.
And on Monday, Kurdish peshmerga forces launched an offensive south and west of the oil city of Kirkuk, further increasing the pressure on the last IS strongholds east of the Tigris river.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew in on a C-17 military transport aircraft and was due to hold talks with top Iraqi officials.
The United States began carrying out air strikes against IS in August, the first of what is now a 60-nation coalition of mostly Western and Arab states supporting Baghdad`s fightback.
But its jets, drones and 2,600 military advisers on the ground have not directly been involved in the battle for Tikrit, which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on March 1.
Washington has been uneasy about the leading role played by Iran, which is not part of the coalition, in the Iraqi government`s efforts to reconquer jihadist-held provinces.
Qassem Soleimani, who is in charge of foreign operations for Tehran`s Revolutionary Guards, has been ubiquitous on the front lines and become a cult figure among Iraqi Shiite fighters.
During a visit to a French aircraft carrier in the Gulf taking part in the air campaign, Dempsey appealed for "strategic patience" in the fight against the IS group in Iraq and Syria."Carpet bombing through Iraq is not the answer," he said Sunday.
Dempsey stressed that training the Iraqi army, which imploded when IS attacked in June 2014, would take more time, as would initiatives to bring Iraq`s Sunnis back into the fold.
"I do think it`s going to require some strategic patience," he said, adding that "these underlying issues have to be resolved".
Iraqi soldiers, police and the increasingly influential paramilitary Popular Mobilisation units, which are dominated by Shiite militias, have been closing in on Tikrit in recent days.
On Sunday, those forces retook the village of Albu Ajil, where some Sunni tribesmen have been accused of involvement alongside IS militants in the June 2014 massacre of hundreds of new, mostly Shiite recruits from the nearby base of Speicher.
The leader of the Popular Mobilisation units, Hadi al-Ameri, had described the Tikrit operation as an opportunity for revenge, sparking wide fears over the fate of Sunni civilians in the area.
Shiite military commanders, including among the most hardline, have since toned down their language and publicly urged their fighters to exercise restraint.
Dozens of families displaced by the fighting fled to Samarra, the other main city in Salaheddin province where Tikrit is also located, to receive assistance and be sheltered in camps.
"I am a farmer, I left my sheep and my cows behind," said Atta Abu Alaa, a 50-year-old who had fled with 12 members of family from a village near Albu Ajil.
"We did not have any relations with IS, we were oppressed," he said, adding that those who fled were held and interrogated by the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia for one day and released.The militia`s leader, Qais al-Khazali, spoke to his fighters on the front line Sunday and urged them not to do anything that could tarnish a victory over IS in Tikrit.
The UN said last week that around 30,000 people were displaced by fighting around Tikrit.
Jihadists militants, holding out in Tikrit with only a few hundred men, are increasingly surrounded.
Applying further pressure, the Kurdish forces that control Kirkuk on Monday launched an operation pushing to the south and west.
Kurdish security official Westa Rasul said the operation was backed by coalition air support.
Police Brigadier General Sarhad Qader said security forces were proceeding cautiously to avoid explosives planted by IS.
Some commanders have described the Tikrit operation as both a launchpad and a test for plans to retake Mosul, the jihadists largest urban hub, which is located farther north.
Dempsey`s visit to Iraq comes days after a Pentagon official suggested such an operation could take place in April or May.
The announcement irked Iraqi top brass, who argued the timing was their call, not Washington`s. Most officials and experts have since indicated a Mosul offensive would need much more preparation.