Race to seal off IS fighters in Tikrit

Iraqi sol­diers and Shia fighters hit back

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

THOU­SANDS of Iraqi sol­diers and Shia mili­ti­a­men sought to seal off Is­lamic State fighters in Tikrit and nearby towns yes­ter­day, the sec­ond day of Iraq’s big­gest of­fen­sive yet against a strong­hold of the rad­i­cal Sunni Is­lamist mil­i­tants.

Ira­nian mil­i­tary com­man­der Qassem Soleimani, who has helped co-or­di­nate Bagh­dad’s counter-at­tacks against Is­lamic State since it seized much of north­ern Iraq in June, was over­see­ing at least part of the op­er­a­tion, wit­nesses said.

His pres­ence on the front­line high­lights neigh­bour­ing Iran’s in­flu­ence over the Shia fighters who have been key to con­tain­ing the mil­i­tants in Iraq.

The US-led air coali­tion which has been at­tack­ing Is­lamic State across Iraq and Syria has not yet played a role in Tikrit, the Pen­tagon said on Mon­day, per­haps in part be­cause of the high-level Ira­nian pres­ence.

Iraqi mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said se­cu­rity forces backed by the Shia mili­tia known as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mo­bil­i­sa­tion) units were ad­vanc­ing grad­u­ally, their progress slowed by road­side bombs and snipers.

They had yet to en­ter Tikrit, the home­town of ex­e­cuted for­mer pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein, or the nearby Ti­gris River town of al-Dour, which of­fi­cials de­scribe as a ma­jor cen­tre for the Is­lamic State fighters.

On the south­ern flank of the of­fen­sive, gov­ern­ment forces mov­ing north from the city of Sa­marra were ex­pected to launch an attack on al-Dour late yes­ter­day.

Soleimani, head of the Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Quds Force, was di­rect­ing op­er­a­tions on the eastern flank from a vil­lage about 55km from Tikrit called Albu Rayash, which was cap­tured from Is­lamic State three days ago. With him were two Iraqi Shia para­mil­i­tary lead­ers: the leader of the Hashid Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Mo­han­dis, and Hadi al-Amiri, who leads the Badr Or­gan­i­sa­tion, a pow­er­ful Shia mili­tia.

“(Soleimani) was stand­ing on top of a hill point­ing with his hands to­wards the ar­eas where Is­lamic State are still op­er­at­ing,” said a wit­ness who was ac­com­pa­ny­ing se­cu­rity forces near Albu Rayash.

The of­fen­sive is the big­gest mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in the Salahud­din re­gion north of Bagh­dad since last year, when Is­lamic State fighters killed hun­dreds of Iraqi army sol­diers who had aban­doned their mil­i­tary base at Camp Spe­icher out­side Tikrit.

Sev­eral Shia Hashid Shaabi fighters have de­scribed this week’s cam­paign as re­venge for the Spe­icher killings. Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi has urged them to pro­tect civil­ians in Salahud­din.

The drive fol­lows sev­eral failed at­tempts to push the mil­i­tants out of Tikrit. Since Is­lamic State de­clared a caliphate last year in ter­ri­to­ries un­der its con­trol in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces have not re­cap­tured and con­trolled a sin­gle city.

But months of US-led airstrikes, backed up by the Shia mili­tias, Kur­dish pesh­merga fighters and Iraqi sol­diers, have con­tained Is­lamic State in Iraq and pushed it back from around Bagh­dad, the Kur­dish north and the eastern prov­ince of Diyala.

The Tikrit battle will have an im­pact on plans to move fur­ther north and re­cap­ture Mo­sul, the largest city un­der Is­lamic State rule. If the of­fen­sive stalls, it will de­lay a move on Mo­sul. A quick victory would give Bagh­dad mo­men­tum, but any ret­ri­bu­tion against Sun­nis would im­peril ef­forts to win over Mo­sul’s mainly Sunni pop­u­la­tion.

To the west of Mo­sul, Is­lamic State fighters at­tacked Kur­dish forces in the town of Sin­jar on Mon­day, a pesh­merga source said. Nine pesh­merga and 45 mil­i­tants were killed.

PIC­TURE: THAIER AL-SUDANI / REUTERS

BID TO RE­TAKE CITY: Iraqi se­cu­rity forces and Shia fight­ers reload a mul­ti­ple rocket launcher. Iraq’s armed forces, backed by Shia mili­tia, at­tacked Is­lamic State strongholds north of Bagh­dad on Mon­day as they launched an of­fen­sive to re­take the city...

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