Iraqi security forces and allied militias pressed deeper into the Tigris River city of Tikrit on Thursday, part of what is shaping up to be a larger push to take back northern Iraqi towns and cities from the self-described Islamic State.
Military officials said they were confident of victory within a few days, which would make it the largest city retaken from the so-called Islamic State, and that it would provide momentum to the next stage of the campaign: retaking Mosul, the city that is the commercial heart of the north.
But early news reports indicate that the battle to win back Tikrit won’t be easy. The Associated Press reports that rocket and mortar fire could be heard coming from city on Thursday, a day after troops swept into its western neighborhoods. The head of the military operation told the AP that IS fighters were holding back government forces with snipers, suicide car-bombs, and heavy machine guns.
An unnamed military source told Reuters that the militants still held four districts in the city center. Many have taken up positions at the presidential complex built by Saddam Hussein, the executed former president whose hometown was Tikrit.
Iraqi officials say that at least 30,000 men are fighting to retake the city, the majority of who are from Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The United States says the international coalition that has targeted IS in Iraq and Syria has not been involved in the ongoing offensive.
But Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast contends that the eight-month bombing campaign is a major reason Iraqi troops and militia fighters have been able to advance.
The U.S.-led air campaign has not only crippled ISIS’s ability to move freely. It’s also providing air cover for Iraqi troops and the Iranian forces fighting alongside of them. It is a perilous, yet unspoken, military alliance between the U.S. and its top regional foe that some said could lead to an ISIS defeat in the short term and ethnic cleansing of Sunni Iraqis in the long run.
The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shiite fighters in the campaign have sparked fears of such sectarian attacks. Some officials and human rights advocates have already raised concern over reports of new abuses by both Iraqi security forces and IS.
The Washington Post reports that the showdown in Tikrit is also a major test of coordination between Shiite militias and government-led Sunni forces. The two groups have often been at odds, but have joined forces against IS.
But as The New York Times reports, “bringing civilians back without revenge attacks or continuing conflict will be the next test for Iraq’s government if it holds its gains and completes the operation in Tikrit.”
The fight for Tikrit has added emotional resonance. It was there that Islamic State fighters massacred more than 1,000 Shiite soldiers from the Camp Speicher base last year, and many Shiites accuse some local Sunnis of taking part.
Raw emotions were on display in Baghdad on Thursday morning, where several dozen parents of the dead soldiers gathered at the busy Tahrir Square, holding photographs of their sons and calling for an international investigation into the deaths, saying they did not trust Iraqi officials to arrive at the truth.
Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, sits on the Tigris River about 80 miles north of Baghdad. It was captured by IS last summer as part of a blitz into northern and western Iraq.