A long line of young men walked along the side of highway Route 1, headed south. Near Tikrit University they were approached by men on buses who identified as belonging to local tribes. They promised the cadets safe passage and rides to Baghdad. Soon more buses arrived filled with militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The air force cadets were loaded into trucks and marched through Tikrit toward Saddam Hussein’s old water palace.
A month earlier, the Iraqi Army saw a renewed assault the Islamic State militants on the city of Ramadi. A strong support base across the unsecured Syrian/Iraqi border bolstered their offensive, providing supply lines for arms and men. On June 5, 2014 militants attacked Samarra, blowing up a police station, occupying key buildings and announcing their victory on the loudspeakers of captured mosques. Iraqi army and police forces regained control of the city, but ISIS attacked Mosul on June 6. By the 11th they had secured most of the city with few obstetrical between them and Tikrit.
Mosul after its capture by ISIS
Different survivors from Camp Speicher tell different stories about the circumstances that caused the 2,400 kidnapped to leave on foot. Soldiers told Reuters that officer Ali al- Freiji ordered them to change into civilian clothes, take fifteen days leave and that local tribes guarantied safe passage. On June 12, tribesmen reportedly entered the base and walked the cadets to Tikrit University, where the captives were bound and loaded into vehicles.
Al-Freiji denied promising free passage and dismissing the soldiers. He testified to the Iraqi parliament that the men forced their way out of the gates, deserting their posts.
Ali Hussein Kadhim gave the New York Times a different version of events. The army officers fled, leaving him and the others to make up their own minds about evacuating. Something like 3,000 men switched into civilian clothes and walked out of the base, he said. Once the group reached the university, ISIS fighters and tribesmen arrived and reportedly loaded them into vehicles.
Both accounts agree that the captives were separated by sect, with Shiites being the principal victims.
Iraqi authorities listed 11,000 soldiers missing from Tikrit during those days. Human Rights Watch could confirm 560-770 killed. ISIS took credit for 1,700. Reports differ on precisely how many of the approximately 2,400 kidnapped cadets died in the massacre.
ISIS occupied the city for the next two weeks until the Iraqi army launched an offensive on June 26. Military helicopters landed at the stadium of Tikrit University and engaged the militants, according to an agriculture professor quoted by Reuters. Government forces attacked from Samara in the south and fighting continued outskirts of town and around the airbase for several days. The initial assault did not evict the militants, and the army pulled back to the south of the city.
On July 4, the IAF captured Awja. Eleven days later they used the position to stage another attack on Tikrit, which ISIS also repelled. To the north of the city, the remaining garrison of COB Speicher defended the base On July 18, militants successfully breached the perimeter. Some early accounts reported the garrison crushed, but the military regained full control of the base by the next day. Eventually, the entire Iraqi Army presence was forced to withdraw from the city.
In August, the Iraqi Army launched another attack into the city. Improvised explosive devices slowed the army’s advance while militants repelled them with heavy machine gun and ordinance fire. Despite early reports of total victory, the city remained under ISIS control.
Near the end of the year, al- Jazeera cited anonymous sources as saying the recapture of Sallidun province would provide a staging ground for future operations. Centrally located, Sallidun province was a strategic corridor into Anbar province and Mosul. Thus it had become a strategic priority for Iraqi forces.
Early December saw the army solidify control of the countryside around Tikrit. Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi drove the road from Speicher airbase to Baiji refinery to the north. The Iraqi Army also pushed their position in the south, toward the city.
This time, Iranian-backed Shiite militias like Badr Group, Kitaeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq pledged to participate in the operation. The decision saw the withdraw of US involvement, not wanting to be de facto allied with the Iranian government. Clashes with ISIS continued through the rest of February, including reports of the bombing of strategic positions by the Iraqi Airforce. On March 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi offered to pardon fighters who surrendered before the attack.
The next day a mixed force of more than 20,000 Iraqi Army soldiers and Shiite militiamen advanced on the city under the cover of airpower. Two columns along the Tigris River focused on targets to the north and south, Another force attacked from the mountains in the east near Highway 55, stopping shy of their target al-Alam after two days of fighting.
Islamic State defenders hampered the advance with I.E.D.s, suicide bombers and sniper fire. By Friday the 6th, Iraqi forces entered al-Dour in the south and launched an attack on al-Alam on Saturday. By Tuesday the town fell. The encircled IS fighters inside Tikrit’s city center destroyed the eastern bridge across the Tigris to slow the security forces.
After several days of assaults into the city, the Iraqi army paused for reinforcements. The push meant fighting in an area increasingly dense with explosive traps and sniping positions. Progress slowed to avoid unnecessary casualties. Lines remained static while the Iraqi forces reportedly awaited units trained in urban combat to arrive for the final push.
On Thursday March 26, coalition aircraft struck ISIS positions in the city after two weeks of stagnation. The assistance of the the United States Airforce in the operation created a temporary schism between some Shiite militias and the Iraqi Army. While some militia commanders stood with Baghdad’s position to accept coalition help, other Hashd al-Shaabi units boycotted the offensive. By Monday, wayward militia fighters had returned for the assault.
The day after their return, ground forces broke through the outskirts to occupy Tikrit’s southern and western neighborhoods. Fighting continued in the north, where Iraqi forces repelled an attack on the University. The city was once again declared captured on April 1.
— Ahmed Shames (@Iraq_Insight) April 1, 2015
A Shi'te paramilitary group at one of the sites of Speicher massacre (left: Islamic State video. Right: my photo) pic.twitter.com/XqYKT7hp6w
— Daniele Raineri (@DanieleRaineri) April 3, 2015
Reports of looting, arson and summary executions emerged after the city’s capture. After several more days of fighting, all pockets of ISIS resistance in Tikrit were gone. Clerics condemned the violence and Prime Minister al-Adebe ordered a crackdown. As a result, almost all of the Shiite paramilitaries left Tikrit, leaving it to the army and local police to address security concerns.
Since the Iraqi government has returned to Tikrit, around 470 bodies have been recovered. The work to find and identify the dead is ongoing. On June 8, military and militia units declared capture of Baiji, in cooperation with coalition support.
Troop positions sourced from Wikipedia maps.
High contrast map layer and Tikrit map layers via Mapbox Studio.