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Iraqi forces to retake Tikrit from ISIS today

The battle for Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, is seen as a key step toward driving the ISIS militants out of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, that is farther north.

Iraqi security forces battled the last remaining pockets of Islamic State militants in Tikrit on Wednesday and were expected to gain full control of the city "within the coming hours," the country's interior minister said.

The remarks came a day after the Iraqi forces, with Shiite militias who rejoined the fight, pushed into the center of Saddam Hussein's hometown, hoisted the Iraqi flag over the Salahuddin provincial headquarters in Tikrit and moved to control the entire city.

The objective, Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban said Wednesday, is now to free all of Tikrit and restore normalcy as quickly as possible.

"There are only a few pockets of resistance left and we will announce the good news within the coming hours that these pockets of resistance are eliminated," al-Ghabban told reporters at the front-lines in the city on Wednesday. He said the government will help displaced residents return and that a civil defense unit will be combing the city for roadside bombs and car bombs.

"After clearing the area from roadside bombs and car bombs, we will reopen police stations to restore normalcy in the city, and we will form committees to supervise the return of people displaced from their homes," he added.

"Daesh is completely defeated," he added, using an Arabic name for the group.

The battle for Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, is seen as a key step toward eventually driving the militants out of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city that is farther north. Extremists from the Islamic State group seized both cities last summer during their lightning advance across northern and western Iraq.

Iraqi forces, including the military, federal police, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes, launched a large-scale operation to recapture Tikrit on March 2. Last week, the United States launched airstrikes on the embattled city at the request of the Iraqi government.

On Wednesday, Iraqi security forces fired on snipers positioned in high buildings and searched homes for remaining militants. Soldiers fanned out in circles from the charred skeletal remains of the Salahuddin provincial government complex, captured the day before.

Militant mortar fire, which had been intense over previous days, fell silent Wednesday, with commanders saying only a few militant snipers remain in the city. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.

A satellite image of Tikrit, released in February by the United Nations, observed that at least 536 buildings in the city have been affected by the fighting. Of those, at least 137 were completely destroyed and 241 were severely damaged. The current offensive also exacerbated previous damage, particularly in the south where clashes have been the most intense in recent days.

Iraq's parliament speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, called on the government to find the means to resettle residents from damaged Tikrit buildings. He said this "requires effort and support by the central government in order to financially support the people in rebuilding their houses."

Meanwhile, the U.N. mission to Iraq said Wednesday that violence claimed the lives of at least 997 people in March, a slight drop from the February death toll.

UNAMI said in a statement that among them were 729 civilians while the rest were security forces. It said at least 2,172 people were wounded, including 1,785 civilians.

The new U.N. envoy to Iraq, Jan Kubis, said he is shocked to see that Iraqis continue to "bear the brunt" of the ongoing violence in the country.

Kubis also said Wednesday that the offensive in Tikrit is "a victory for all the Iraqi people," and that the U.N. was ready to assist the provincial and national authorities in responding to the needs of the thousands of displaced."

___

Yacoub reported from Baghdad.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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