Race to seal off IS fighters in Tikrit
Iraqi soldiers and Shia fighters hit back
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.
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...