Top US officer in Baghdad as Iraq fights for Tikrit

AFP By Daniel De Luce – 9 March 2015 – General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has landed in Baghdad as Iraqi forces battle the Islamic State group: Baghdad (AFP) – The top US military officer vowed in Baghdad on Monday that the Islamic State group will be defeated, 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. But in a sign of the brutal lengths to which IS will go to maintain control, the group executed 20 men in Iraq’s northern province of Kirkuk and strung up more than a dozen of their victims’ bodies in public.

General Martin Dempsey’s visit also coincided with the start of an offensive by Kurdish peshmerga forces in Kirkuk that further increases the pressure on the last IS strongholds east of the Tigris river. “Daesh will be defeated,” Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, vowed at a news conference in Baghdad, using an Arabic acronym for IS that the group rejects as derogatory.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.

Dempsey emphasised that strikes must “be very precise” to avoid “additional suffering,” also saying that while the priority has been protecting people, it may also be possible to use air power to defend Iraqi heritage sites being targeted by the jihadists.Iraq’s tourism and antiquities minister, Adel Fahad al-Shershab, called on Sunday for the coalition to protect such sites from IS, after the jihadists smashed priceless artefacts at the Mosul museum, bulldozed one ancient city and may have attacked a second.

– No carpet bombing –

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 on 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 Sunni Arab minority 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 fears for Sunni civilians in the area.Shiite commanders 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.

– IS executes 20 –

“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 his 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 a day before being 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, where the jihadists are holding out with only a few hundred men.In the Kirkuk province town of Hawijah, IS executed 20 men who wanted to join the Popular Mobilisation units, a police intelligence officer and two local officials said on Monday. The executions could not be independently confirmed, but a gruesome series of photos posted online and shared on social media are evidence that they took place. The photos show the bodies of more than a dozen different men — said to be Popular Mobilisation members — strung by their feet from light poles, what appears to be a communications or electricity tower, and under a massive sign featuring the IS flag and name. Iraqi Kurdish forces that control other areas of Kirkuk launched an operation backed by coalition air support on Monday that aims to push IS back south and west of the provincial capital, piling further pressure on the jihadists.