Iraqi forces await reinforcements before renewing Tikrit offensive

Islamic State holding about half of Saddam Hussein’s home city

Iraqi security forces’ armored vehicles  with  Hashid Shaabi militias are driven past smoke arising from a clash with Islamic State militants in the town of al-Alam March. Photograph: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Iraqi security forces’ armored vehicles with Hashid Shaabi militias are driven past smoke arising from a clash with Islamic State militants in the town of al-Alam March. Photograph: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

 

Frustrated by guerrilla tactics from Islamic State militants, Iraqi forces paused for reinforcements yesterday in a major offensive to take back the city of Tikrit.

The operation appeared to have stalled, two days after Iraqi security forces and their mainly Shia militia allies pushed into Tikrit, the home city of executed ex-president Saddam Hussein.

A source in the military command said Iraqi forces would not move forward until reinforcements reached Tikrit, of which Islamic State still holds about half.

If government forces wrest full control, it will be the first time they have won back a city from Islamic State since it overran large areas of the country last year and declared an Islamic caliphate in territory it is holding in Iraq and Syria.

From there it has spread fear across the region by beheading hostages and killing or kidnapping members of religious minorities.

In Tikrit, the militants have deployed snipers and turned streets into a labyrinth of home-made bombs and booby-trapped buildings.

Forces loyal to powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and known as the “Peace Brigades” appeared to be positioning themselves to join the government offensive. Up to 1,500 fighters had reached the sacred Shia city of Samarra, south of Tikrit, a source in Sadr’s provincial office said.

The deployment came days after Sadr announced the “unfreezing” of his forces’ participation in battles against the militants. He had suspended their actions after allegations of abuses committed by other Shia militias during recent operations.

One official said he was told the Peace Brigade fighters intended to push north toward Tikrit today.

Outcome in no doubt

Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Shia paramilitary Badr Organisation and now one of the most powerful men in Iraq, said the outcome of the battle for Tikrit was in no doubt, but Iraqi forces needed time.

“We are not in a hurry, but we have a plan and we are following it,” Mr Amiri told state television from the frontline. “Even if the battle drags on for two, three or four days that is okay. We will celebrate the liberation of Tikrit.”

A victory in Tikrit would give Iraqi forces momentum for the next stage of the campaign to retake Mosul, the largest city under control of Islamic State.

But the involvement of Iran, which backs some of the Shia militia at the forefront of the campaign and is playing a direct role, is a source of unease for some Sunnis in Iraq and across the wider region.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani has been spotted on the battlefield overseeing the Tikrit offensive. The foreign minister of Sunni Saudi Arabia, Saud al-Faisal, last week said the battle for Tikrit showed how Iran was “taking over” Iraq.

Islamic State fighters overran the city last June during a lightning offensive that was halted just outside Baghdad.

– (Reuters)