Fighters attacking Isis in Tikrit say the city will be liberated within three days despite militants laying explosives around the city to halt advances from Iraqi forces.
The claim was made by Karim al-Nuri, a top leader from the Badr militia and the spokesman of the volunteer Haashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) units, who believes they'll overcome challenges posed by Isis tactics to hold on, Al Jazeera reports.
Iraqi forces consisting mainly of Hashid Shaabi, loyal to Iran, have already taken more than half of the city but security officials told Reuters that Isis fighters, sensing defeat, have laid improvised explosive devices around the city, halting any further advances.
It’s believed that Isis, also known as Islamic State, has just a few hundred fighters holding on to the parts of the city they still control, including some central districts and a complex of palaces built by former leader Sadam Hussein.
And while there are more than 20,000 pro-government fighters, the vast majority are Shia militia, supported by a small force of Sunni tribesmen and around 3,000 Iraqi troops.
A source in the local military command centre told Reuters that military commanders had "reached a decision to halt the operation until a suitable, carefully set plan is in place."
The source, speaking by phone from near Tikrit, said the Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias were waiting for reinforcements from "well-trained forces", but would not give an idea as to when they would arrive.
"We do not need a large number, just one or two thousand. We need professional personnel and soldiers," he added.
Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashem said it wouldn’t be possible for the militia to clear buildings rigged with explosives and they would need airstrikes to do so.
However, the head of one of the Shia militia brigades fighting alongside government forces told the BBC that Tikrit would be “liberated” even if it meant street-to-street fighting.
Muain al-Khmdy, a commander of the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, told the BBC that pro-government forces would surround and attack areas held by Isis, driving them from their positions. He claimed they would take the city within a week.
Army and militia forces pushed into Saddam Hussein's home city this week in their biggest drive yet against the insurgents who seized large swathes of land in Iraq and neighbouring Syria last year in a lightning campaign halted just outside Baghdad.
More than 20,000 troops and allied militias entered the city about 100 miles north of the capital on Wednesday after retaking towns to the south and north in a campaign launched nearly two weeks ago.
North of Tikrit in the town of al-Malha near the Beiji oil refinery, Isis fighters attacked police and Hashid Shaabi forces and clashes were continuing, local police told Reuters.
Victory for Iraq's Shi'ite-led government in Tikrit would set the tone for a broader confrontation in Mosul, the largest city in the north.
Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obedi told the BBC that recapturing Tikrit could be a turning point in the battle against Isis.
He described the city as a stepping stone to other Isis-held territory, including Mosul.
"The liberation of this city [Tikrit] and province will serve as a launch pad for reclaiming the north and the west of Iraq," he told the BBC.
As part of a push to assert full control of Tikrit, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, backed by Shi'ite militia fighters, have been attacking Islamic State-held towns and villages south and west of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Peshmerga sources said.
On Saturday, roadside bombs and heavy sniper fire stopped Peshmerga forces entering the Shi'ite Turkman village of Bashir, 20 km south of Kirkuk, but made slow advances and captured some villages to the southwest of the city, officials told Reuters.
Unlike the battle for Tiktrit, those advances have been backed by air strikes from the US-led coalition.
In and around Tikrit, the battle is being waged by thousands of fighters loyal to Shi'ite militias backed by Iran.
Islamic State insurgents continue to fight back elsewhere in Iraq in territory they seized last year.
In Ramadi, about 90 km west of Baghdad, two suicide car bombers attacked security personnel positions, killing two policemen, a police source said. The attacks were followed by clashes between Isis fighters and Iraqi security forces in the city centre, he added.
And on the outskirts of Samarra, a sacred Shi'ite city being used as a rear base for the Tikrit offensive further north, militants attacked an Iraqi army unit on Friday, two security officials said. One said 11 soldiers had been captured by the militants while the second said some soldiers had gone missing.
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