Iraq claims Tikrit ‘liberated’ from Islamic State
About 30,000 pro-government forces try to capture city from Islamist militants
Iraqi armed forces backed by Shia militia and thousands of volunteers, including Sunni tribal fighters, advanced further into Tikrit yesterday, imposing shaky control over areas of the city under the sway of Islamist militants for the past nine months.
The pro-government forces, numbering about 30,000 and aided by Iranian advisers, appeared to be making progress in capturing the city from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as IS. Iraqi officials said they were in control of at least 60 per cent of Tikrit.
A spokesman for Iraq’s armed forces called the offensive a “fatal blow” against IS. “Northern Tikrit has been purged and retrieved by the security forces. Tikrit today . . . is being completely liberated,” he said. “We deliver the good news of victory to the Iraqi people, against the terrorist Daesh,” the head of the Najaba militia, one of the Shia groups, was quoted as saying to local media. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The assault comes less than two weeks into an all-out effort to clear Iraq’s overwhelmingly Sunni Salahuddin province of militants and to cut off supply lines to their strongholds in Mosul city and Anbar province.
Intense fighting erupted on Wednesday and yesterday in Anbar as IS launched more than a dozen suicide bombings targeting Ramadi, the provincial capital. Fighting also raged in eastern Anbar as the Iraqi army’s 14th Division battled over the town of Karma, to the east of IS-controlled Fallujah.
IS militants fired mortars near the city of Kirkuk and launched an offensive to take control of the contested town of Sinjar, along the Syrian border, according to peshmerga forces from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
Iraqi forces made slow progress towards the centre of Tikrit. Iraqi forces encountered hundreds of homemade explosive devices, sometimes as many as 35 every 100 metres, causing the majority of casualties among the pro-government forces. In the face of a highly motivated and much larger force, overwhelmed IS fighters appeared to have mostly slipped away from the battle towards Mosul or nearby Hawija, an insurgent stronghold 100km to the northeast.
Pro-government forces also appeared to be advancing methodically – suggesting a discipline and co-ordination that was absent when IS cut a swathe through northern Iraq last year.
Crucially, the mostly Shia Iraqi forces appeared to have avoided the brutal sectarian reprisal killings that characterised offensives to retake parts of Diyala province to the northeast of Baghdad, and Babel province, just to the south.
Videos posted on social media showed the few civilians in Tikrit embracing the Iraqi forces. “What we are hearing from people at the front lines – both Sunni and Shia militiamen – is the fact that Sunni tribal fighters have completely changed the atmosphere and character of the fight,” said Ammar Shahbandar, Iraq director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a western-funded media training group.
In a televised statement, Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, said the Salahuddin operation continued. It was “the first time Iraqi forces, supported by popular forces, [were] fighting in that many areas simultaneously”, he said.
Perhaps stung by previous allegations of atrocities, government and militia forces brought in Sunni fighters, mostly from Salahaddin’s Jabouri tribe, to form a major force for the offensive.
–(Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015)