Iraqi army and militias surround Isis in major offensive in the battle for Tikrit

Iraq's biggest offensive yet against the stronghold of the Islamist militants

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The Independent Online

The Iraqi Army, backed by Shia militia, sought to surround Isis fighters in Tikrit and its surrounding towns yesterday as the battle for control of Saddam Hussein’s birthplace entered a second, and potentially decisive, day.

Iraq’s biggest offensive yet against the stronghold of the radical Sunni Islamist militants continued with the Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani, who has helped coordinate Baghdad’s counter-attacks against Isis since it seized much of northern Iraq in June, overseeing at least part of the operation.

Isis fighters responded to the Shia advance with at least two attempted car-bomb suicide attacks. In both cases, militants were shot and their vehicles exploded before reaching army lines.

Battles were reported in the suburb of al-Dour, the western al-Zuhur district, the northern area of Qadisiya, and near the Teaching Hospital in the south. Although the government forces and members of the Popular Mobilisation Force – made up of Iran-backed Shia militia – moved towards surrounding Isis militants in Tikrit, their progress was slowed by roadside bombs.

Moeen al-Kadhimi, a leader of the Popular Mobilisation Force, told the BBC: “We’re not in a rush to end the Tikrit operation. We’re very careful in our planning, especially because the IS military strategy is based on planting explosive devices on the roads, in houses, everything... even lampposts.

“The other key strategy is the use of snipers. This is because they’re not ready to fight us face-to-face.”

Government forces were last night yet to enter Tikrit or the nearby Tigris river town of al-Dour, which officials describe as a major centre for Isis. On the southern flank, army and police officials said government forces moving north from the city of Samarra could launch an attack on al-Dour later on Tuesday.

Smoke rises from an explosion as Iraqi forces, Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribal fighters battle Islamic State militants for control of Tikrit (AP)

Mr Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, was directing operations on the eastern flank from a village about 35 miles from Tikrit called Albu Rayash, captured over the weekend. The offensive is the biggest military operation in the Salahuddin region since last summer, when Isis fighters killed hundreds of Iraq army soldiers who had abandoned their military base at Camp Speicher outside Tikrit. Several Shia fighters have described this week’s campaign as revenge.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has urged them to protect civilians in Salahuddin, a mainly Sunni province. The Tikrit battle will have a major impact on plans to recapture Mosul, the largest city under Isis rule. Any retribution against local Sunnis would imperil efforts to win over Mosul’s mainly Sunni population.