Iraqi government forces are advancing into Tikrit on several fronts, forcing Islamic State (IS) militants to fall back to the city centre, officials say, reports BBC. Soldiers and militiamen have reportedly retaken areas and key sites in the north, south and west, including a police headquarters and a hospital. Iraq’s defence minister said phase two of the offensive would begin soon. Some 23,000 personnel are believed to be involved in the operation to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown. It is the biggest offensive against IS mounted by the government since the jihadist group captured large parts of the country last June. Meanwhile, the BBC has seen video evidence that chlorine gas is being used as a weapon in Tikrit by IS militants. The Iraqi government said small amounts of the chemical were being used in crude roadside bombs targeting its forces.
Suicide car bombs
The battle for Tikrit appeared to be entering a critical phase on Thursday, with about 3,000 Iraqi soldiers and police making a final push for the city, backed by 20,000 Popular Mobilisation militiamen and a much smaller force of Sunni tribesmen. A security official in the Samarra Operations Command in Salahuddin province told the BBC government forces had taken the Industrial Zone and Celebrations Square near the city centre after seizing the Qadisiya area further north. They also now reportedly hold the Teaching Hospital and the New Ouja district in the city’s south-east, and the al-Diyum and al-Hayakil areas in the west.
The official said battles with IS militants were taking place near Celebrations Square, in the western district of al-Zuhur, an d around the presidential palace complex built by Saddam in the south-east. Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said he expected government forces to reach the centre of Tikrit within three to four days. The head of the military operation told the Associated Press news agency IS militants were trying to repel security forces with snipers, heavy machine-guns and mortars, as well as suicide car bomb attacks. Earlier, a senior Popular Mobilisation commander, Moeen al-Kadhimi, told CNN 75% of the city was back in government control. The remaining 25% was in the hands of about 150 IS militants, he added.
Fears for Sunnis
On Wednesday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, said he was certain the operation was going to succeed, despite the fact that US-led coalition air power was not being used. But with Iranian-backed Shia militia leading the fight for Tikrit and the Iranian military helping to co-ordinate it, he voiced concerns about what would happen to the city’s Sunni population when the fighting was over. “There’s no doubt… they’re going to run [IS] out of Tikrit,” he told a hearing of the Senate foreign relations committee.
“The question is what comes after, in terms of their willingness to let Sunni families move back into their neighbourhoods – whether they work to restore the basic services that are going to be necessary, or whether it results in atrocities and retribution.” Shia militia leaders have vowed to seek revenge for the massacre by IS fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen of at least 700 soldiers, most of them Shia, at Camp Speicher outside Tikrit last June. The offensive on Tikrit is the first attempt to push out IS from a major urban centre in Iraq and is seen as a test for a planned operation to retake Mosul, the largest city in the north.