Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias on Tuesday pushed to the outskirts of the encircled city of Tikrit, residents and Iraqi officials said, after 10 days of heavy fighting that have seen government-aligned forces take control of two key towns north and south of the city.
News that government forces had arrived on the outskirts of Tikrit, which has been occupied by the Islamic State since last summer, was greeted triumphantly on state television, with officials claiming the militants had withdrawn from the city and predicting a quick victory.
But officials have made similar claims in the past about the success of operations against the Islamic State – last summer about a failed mission to retake Tikrit, and most notably last fall about the town of Baiji – only to see the gains they claimed evaporate before fierce counterattacks.
The Salahuddin Operations Center, which is overseeing the operation, said Tuesday night that pro-government forces, including a small number of Sunni Muslim tribal fighters, had surrounded the city and security forces had taken control of the city’s hospital on the southern edge of the town.
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But Islamic State militants dynamited a bridge east of the city, preventing pro-government forces that had earlier captured the towns of al Dour and al Alam from crossing the Tigris River to support government forces driving from the south. The government also holds a military base west of the city.
State television and government news services provided video and still pictures of multiple locations in al Alam and al Dour that appeared to verify government control, but notably they aired nothing that indicated troops had reached Tikrit proper.
Capturing the town would be a symbolic victory for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, marking not only the most important advance against the Islamic State since last June, when the jihadists captured the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, but also installing Iranian-backed militias in the hometown of Saddam Hussein, the late former Iraqi leader who fought a brutal war against Iran in the 1980s and was reviled by most Shiites, Iraq’s majority sect.
The prospect of Iranian-backed militias – one of the most important, the Badr Organization, was founded as part of the Iranian military in the 1980s – in charge of such a key Sunni locale has alarmed American commanders, who’ve conspicuously withheld aerial support from the Iranian-led operation.
“The militias are in control of the hospital and have moved near some of Saddam’s palaces in the southern part of the city,’ said an Iraqi military commander, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, as he didn’t have permission for his name to be used when briefing reporters. “There has not been much fighting in that area, but we are proceeding very slowly because of fears of booby-trapped cars and suicide bombers.”
As in the advance on Baiji last year, the militias are encountering large numbers of homemade bombs. “The commanders are acting very patiently,” the Iraqi commander said. “This will be a long fight, and there are so many bombs planted that even if there is no resistance we move very slowly towards the city center.”
One state television broadcaster claimed that security forces had entered Tikrit’s city center, but that was not confirmed by other sources.
In what many Iraqis see as a sign of improving cooperation between the central government and the Kurdish autonomous region, which have been battling the Islamic State with little coordination, Kurdish peshmerga fighters launched an assault from their lines south of the city of Kirkuk in the direction of Tikrit, adding pressure to the Islamic State forces’ northern positions.
According to Kurdish military officers in Kirkuk, peshmerga forces on Tuesday seized at least six villages and about 20 miles of territory that had been under the Islamic State’s control. Kurdish officers said the offensive would continue through the week.
A Kurdish commander, Gen. Hiwa Kirkuki, said by phone that the operation’s goal was to clear the Islamic State from areas west of Kirkuk and to extend Kurdish control along the road that links Kirkuk to Mosul, the largest city in Iraq under Islamic State occupation. He said two Kurdish soldiers had been killed and 16 wounded.
Kirkuki credited airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition with allowing the Kurdish forces to advance.
That set the Kurdish operation apart from the assault on Tikrit, where American planes have been absent. U.S. officials have been concerned that the use of Iranian-backed Shiite militias would exacerbate the sectarian tensions that have roiled Iraq for years.
Concern about how the Shiite-led government in Baghdad treated its Sunni compatriots was one reason the U.S. delayed assisting the government last year when the Islamic State seized nearly a third of the country within weeks. The Obama administration demanded first that the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, be replaced with a leader who might be more inclusive. The new prime minister, Haider al Abadi, a member of Maliki’s party, is a Shiite who’s pledged to work with Sunnis but has so far been unable to organize a military force that represents all of Iraq’s sects.