Fierce Clashes Continue Outside IS Stronghold

Fierce Clashes Continue Outside IS StrongholdFierce Clashes Continue Outside IS Stronghold

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and Shiite fighters sought to seal off Islamic State militants in Tikrit and nearby towns on Tuesday, the second day of Iraq's biggest offensive yet against a stronghold of the extremist group.

Backed by Shiite militias and as well as Sunni tribal fighters, government forces made little headway on the second day of a large-scale military operation to recapture Tikrit, which fell to the IS group last summer, two local officials said.

Fierce clashes were underway mainly outside the town of al-Dour south of Tikrit, while government troops were shelling militant bases inside the city, they said.

The officials spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to brief media, AP said in a report.

There were reports that IS was pulling back from Tikrit as Iraqi troops allegedly managed to retake parts of the strategic city in a major counter-offensive against the militants.

The military operation is seen as a litmus test for the capability of Iraqi troops to dislodge the militants from major cities they conquered in the country’s Sunni heartland in the north and west during an onslaught last summer. Previous attempts to capture Tikrit all failed because of tough resistance from the militants.

Tikrit, the provincial capital of Salahuddin province, is located some 140 kilometers north of Baghdad. It was taken by IS insurgents along with the northern second-largest city Mosul during last year’s fighting.

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

On Monday, Iraqi and US officials said the US-led coalition was not involved in the Tikrit operation and had not been asked to carry out airstrikes.

Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the military commander of the Salahuddin region told Iraqi state TV that troops would need some time to enter the city of Tikrit.

  Australia Dispatches More Troops

Australia will send an additional 300 soldiers to help train Iraqi forces fighting IS, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Tuesday, following a request from the US to contribute to an international training coalition.

Australia last year committed a 600-strong force comprising some 400 air force personnel and 200 special forces to help fight IS. The new Australian troops will join around 140 New Zealand defense force members and be based at Taji, northwest of Baghdad, Abbott told reporters.

“We are naturally reluctant as a peace-loving people to reach out to far-away conflicts but, as we know, this conflict has been reaching out to us for months now,” Abbott said. “The government’s decision has the support of the prime minister of Iraq and it responds to a formal request from the US to contribute specific Australian defense force capabilities to this international coalition.”

Australia is on high alert for attacks by homegrown militants or extremists returning from fighting in the Middle East. In December two hostages and a radical militant who had sought to align himself with IS were killed in a Sydney hostage siege.

  WW3 Against IS

King Abdullah of Jordan called the battle against IS militants “World War 3” in what is a “generational fight” to overcome these “outlaws.” Speaking to CNN, he implored all religions to come together, adding that “this is our war.”

He made a point of referring to the fight against IS as a “third World War” and called upon all nations to come together to help counter the threat posed by the militant group since they conquered large swathes of Iraq and Syria last year.

“So this is our war. And we have a moral responsibility to reach out to those Muslims, to protect them, and to stop them before they reach our border,” King Abdullah said.

The Jordanian leader did not advocate bombarding IS positions with nuclear missiles or thousands of tanks, but is advocating a united front, which would bring “Muslims, Christians and other religions together.”

He stressed that the ideological element of the conflict will be the hardest element to solve. Last month, Jordan mourned the horrific death of  one of its air force pilots whose plane had crashed in Syria.