War with Isis: Iraqi security forces recapture part of Tikrit as militants' grip begins to loosen

Heavy fighting erupts as army and militia advance upon Saddam Hussein's home city

Iraqi security forces and militias fought their way into Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit today, advancing simultaneously from the north and south as their biggest counter-offensive so far against Isis jihadists approached its climax.

Army and Shia militia fighters captured part of Tikrit’s northern Qadisiya district, the provincial governor said, while in the south of the city a security officer said another force made a rapid push towards the centre. There were explosions and heavy gunfire as attack helicopters fired missiles and ground troops laid down heavy machine gunfire only a few miles from the centre of Tikit, where black smoke could be seen rising overhead.

Fighters from the so-called Islamic State were said to be commandeering civilian vehicles as they attempted to flee the city.

“The forces entered Tikrit general hospital,” an official at Iraq’s main military operation command centre said. “There is heavy fighting going on near the presidential palaces, next to the hospital complex.”

Isis fighters who stormed into Tikrit last June during a lightning offensive through northern and central Iraq have used the complex of palaces built in Tikrit under Saddam, the executed former president, as their headquarters.

 

More than 20,000 troops and Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militias known as Hashid Shaabi, supported by local Sunni Muslim tribes, launched the offensive for Tikrit 10 days ago, advancing from the east and along the east bank of the Tigris.

On Tuesday, they took the town of al-Alam on the northern edge of Tikrit, paving the way for an attack on the city itself. “The governor of Salahuddin announces the purging of half of Qadisiya district, the largest of Tikrit’s neighbourhoods,” a statement from governor Raed al-Jubouri’s office said.

Army and militia fighters raised the national flag above a military hospital in the section of Qadisiya they had retaken from the militants, security officials said. After pausing while helicopters attacked Isis snipers and positions, the ground forces were progressing steadily, taking “one street every 30 minutes”, the security official added. He said there was fierce fighting around Tikrit police headquarters just south of Qadisiya.

To the northwest, troops and Hashid Shaabi fighters were clashing with Isis militants in the city’s industrial zone, he added.

If Iraq’s Shia-led government successfully retakes Tikrit, it would be the first city clawed back from the Sunni insurgents and would give it momentum in the next, pivotal stage of the campaign – recapturing Mosul, the largest city in the north.

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Video footage shows Iraqi fighters taking part in an assault to reclaim Tikrit (AP)

US air power has played no direct part in the assault on Tikrit but is expected to engage in the Mosul assault, which Pentagon officials have said could begin in April or May – though observers have questioned whether sufficient Iraqi forces can be readied in time. Mosul is also the biggest city held by the ultra-radical Isis, who now rule a self-declared cross-border caliphate in Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq. But over the past few months Isis has slowly lost ground in Iraq to the army, Shia militias and Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by air strikes carried out by the US-led coalition of mainly Western and allied Arab states.

Support on the ground for the Tikrit assault has come from neighbouring Iran, which sent an elite Revolutionary Guard commander to oversee part of the battle and has also helped arm and train the Shia militias fighting alongside Iraq’s regular army.

Elsewhere in Iraq, suicide car bombers in 13 vehicles attacked Iraqi army positions in Ramadi, about 55 miles west of Baghdad. A medical source said five people were killed in the attacks, but the real figure could be significantly higher. One of the car bombs exploded near a bridge in the west of the city and damaged part of the bridge, a police source said.

An Isis suicide bomber also struck a position of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the northern town of Sinjar. After the bombing some 70 fighters launched an attack but were driven back by coalition air strikes, according to a Kurdish security official.

In Baghdad, six people were killed when a car bomb exploded in a busy street in the mainly Shia district of Hurriya.

Reuters; AP

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