ROCKETS and mortars echoed across Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit yesterday as Iraqi security forces clashed with Islamic State militants a day after sweeping into the Sunni city north of Baghdad.
Recapturing Tikrit is seen as a key step towards rolling back the extremist group, which seized much of northern and western Iraq last summer and controls about a third of Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi troops and allied Shiite militiamen entered Tikrit for the first time on Wednesday from the north and south. The head of the military operation said yesterday that troops would launch phase two of the offensive later in the day as they try to reach the city centre.
The militants are trying to repel security forces with snipers, suicide car bombs, heavy machine guns and mortars, he said.
Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, sits on the Tigris River about 80 miles north of Baghdad. Several of Saddam’s palaces remain there, and supporters of the deceased dictator are believed to have played a key role in the Islamic State group’s seizure of the city last year. Islamic State fighters stormed into Tikrit last June during a lightning offensive that was halted just outside Baghdad.
They have since used the complex of palaces as their headquarters.
Iraqi defence minister Khaled al-Obeidi said he expects security forces to reach the centre of Tikrit within three to four days. The operation to retake Tikrit is “essential to opening a corridor for security forces to move from the south to Mosul”, he said, referring to Iraq’s second-largest city and the militants’ biggest stronghold.
He described the operation as “100 per cent Iraqi, from the air and ground”. Military officials said they are advancing with caution in an effort to limit damage to the city’s infrastructure, so that residents can return quickly once Tikrit is retaken.
Yesterday, Mr al-Obeidi visited troops and met with senior military commanders of the Tikrit operation as well as Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Mr Soleimani and other Iranian advisers have played a key role in pushing the militants back in recent months.
The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shiite militias in the campaign have raised fears of possible sectarian cleansing should Tikrit, an overwhelmingly Sunni city, fall to the government troops.
The US has said its allied coalition carrying out air strikes targeting the extremists has not been involved in the ongoing Tikrit offensive.
If Iraq’s Shiite-led government retakes Tikrit it would be the first city clawed back from the insurgents and would give it momentum to recapture Mosul.
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