Iraqi PM says troops have reached Tikrit's center battling IS

The Islamic State group seized the Sunni city last summer during its lightning advance across northern and western Iraq.

Alaa Al-Marjani/REUTERS
Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite paramilitary fighters hold an Islamist State flag, which they pulled down in Tikrit, March 31, 2015.

Iraqi forces battled Islamic State militants Tuesday holed up in downtown Tikrit as the country's prime minister announced security forces had reached the city's center.

In a statement Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said security forces already have retaken neighborhoods on the southern and western edges of Saddam Hussein's hometown and are moving to control the entire city. But Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the Salahuddin operation, said his forces fighting in from the west were still 300 meters (325 yards) from the center of Tikrit.

Street-to-street fighting raged into Tuesday afternoon and estimates on how much of this strategic city on the banks of the Tigris River that Iraqi forces held widely differed. Iraqi army Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati said at least 75 percent of the city had been recaptured. Ammar Hikmat, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said more than 40 percent of Tikrit was under Iraqi control.

"Our security forces are now pushing forward toward the presidential complex and have already entered parts of it," Hikmat said. "I think the whole city will be retaken within the coming 24 hours."

An Associated Press reporter embedded with Iraqi security forces saw soldiers surround the iconic presidential palace in Tikrit, as well as surround the provincial government headquarters there.

The Islamic State group seized the Sunni city last summer during its lightning advance across northern and western Iraq. The battle for Tikrit is seen as a key step toward eventually driving the extremists from Iraq's second-largest city Mosul, which is further north.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim said at least 40 militants were killed during the Tikrit offensive Tuesday as Iraqi forces dismantled 300 roadside bombs. He said that the federal police, backed by allied militias, were able to clear the government compound, the Tikrit provincial council headquarters, its security headquarters and the presidential palace.

The leader of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, a collaborative force made up mostly of Shiite militias, also said Tuesday his fighters had rejoined the Tikrit operation, less than a week after announcing a boycott over US involvement.

Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis told the AP that his fighters participated in the southern offensive Tuesday and would be joining the offensive on the northern and western fronts shortly.

Iranian military advisers have been providing significant support since the Tikrit offensive began on March 2, arming and training the Iraqi Shiite militias, which have played a prominent role on the battlefield. Militiamen make up more than two-thirds of the force fighting the Islamic State group in Tikrit.

But the operation stalled until US forces joined the offensive by launching airstrikes on March 25. Since then, Iraqi allied forces have moved in on the city, though they have been slowed by snipers and hidden bombs.

The Iraqi military has struggled to recover from its collapse in June when facing the Islamic State group. In the face of the advance, commanders disappeared. Pleas for more ammunition went unanswered. In some cases, soldiers stripped off their uniforms and ran.

Retaking Tikrit would be the biggest win so far for Baghdad's Shiite-led government. The city lies 80 miles north of Baghdad and lies on the road connecting the capital to Mosul. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces have a major supply link for any future operation to retake Mosul.

US military officials have that said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul likely will begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed

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