Iraqi Forces Take Half of Tikrit, Await Reinforcements

Iraqi Forces Take Half of Tikrit, Await ReinforcementsIraqi Forces Take Half of Tikrit, Await Reinforcements

Frustrated by guerrilla tactics from Islamic State (IS) militants, Iraqi forces paused for reinforcements on Friday in a major offensive to take back the city of Tikrit.

The operation appeared to have stalled for the time being, two days after Iraqi security forces and their mainly Shiite militia allies pushed into Tikrit, the home city of executed ex-president Saddam Hussein.

According to Reuters, a source in the military command said Iraqi forces would not move forward until reinforcements reached Tikrit, of which IS still holds around half.

If government forces wrest full control, it will be the first time they have won back a city from IS since it over-ran large areas of the country last year and declared an Islamic caliphate in territory it is holding in Iraq and Syria.

From there it has spread fear across the region by beheading Arab and Western hostages and killing or kidnapping members of religious minorities like Yazidis and Christians.

Forces loyal to powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and known as the ‘Peace Brigades’ appeared to be positioning themselves to join the government offensive. Up to 1,500 fighters had reached the sacred Shiite city of Samarra, south of Tikrit, a source in Sadr’s provincial office told Reuters.

The deployment came days after Sadr announced the “unfreezing” of his forces’ participation in battles against the militants. He had suspended their actions after allegations of abuses committed by other Shiite militias during recent operations.

One official said he was told that the Peace Brigade fighters intend to push north toward Tikrit on Saturday.

Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Shiite paramilitary Badr Organization and now one of the most powerful men in Iraq, said the outcome of the battle for Tikrit was in no doubt, but Iraqi forces needed time.

A victory in Tikrit would give Iraqi forces momentum for the next stage of the campaign to retake Mosul, the largest city under control of IS.

IS fighters overran the city last June during a lightning offensive that was halted just outside Baghdad. They have since used the complex of palaces built in Tikrit under Saddam as their headquarters.

The insurgents were still in control of the presidential complex and at least three other districts in the center of Tikrit on Friday.    

More than 20,000 Iraqi troops and Shiite militias, supported by local Sunni tribes are taking part in the offensive, which began 11 days ago.

  Offensive Around Kirkuk

IS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said in an audio-recording published on Thursday that its fighters remained “steadfast” and were growing in strength, dismissing its enemies’ claims of gains in Tikrit as “fake”.

Even if the militants are routed from the city, they still hold a vast area straddling the Syrian border where they are likely to regroup, and Iraqi forces have previously struggled to hold ground they have retaken from the extremist group.

IS is on the back foot in the north, where Shiite militia and Kurdish forces known as peshmerga went on the offensive around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk on Friday.

The peshmerga began attacking IS positions near Kirkuk on Monday and have retaken territory and a number of villages to the southwest. Kurdish commanders said they had faced relatively weak resistance, but were being held up by homemade bombs.