Thousands of Iraqi forces have begun surrounding Islamic State fighters in Tikrit and nearby towns on the second day of Iraq’s biggest offensive yet against a stronghold of the radical Sunni Islamist militants.
Iraqi military officials said soldiers were advancing gradually but their progress was being slowed by jihadist snipers and roadside bombs.
The government has mobilised a 30,000-strong force for the push to retake Tikrit made up of Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribesmen as well as troops and police.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the jihadists who have held Tikrit since June 2014 have been resorting to guerrilla tactics to disrupt the government’s three-pronged advance.
“They are using urban warfare and snipers, so we are advancing in a cautious and delicate way, and we need more time,” a lieutenant-general on the ground said.
Iraqi forces are moving on Tikrit from three directions, with units targeting the towns of Al-Alam and Ad-Dawr to the north and south, while another large contingent drives on the city from the east.
“We are close to Ad-Dawr, but Daesh is still in the centre,” the senior officer said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
The jihadist group announced in a radio bulletin on Tuesday that a US national from its ranks had carried out a suicide attack against Iraqi forces near Samarra, the other main city in Salaheddin province.
The attacker was referred to by his nom de guerre, Abu Dawud al-Amriki, but the claim could not be immediately verified.
The battle for Tikrit and other towns in Salaheddin province will provide a mini-preview of what awaits further to the north in Mosul.
Soufan Group intelligence consultancy
The operation against the jihadists was announced on Sunday by prime minister Haider al-Abadi.
Both Iraqi and Iranian media said Qassem Soleimani – the commander of the Al-Quds Force covert operations unit of Tehran’s elite Revolutionary Guards – was in Salaheddin province to help coordinate operations.
His presence on the front line highlights neighbouring Iran’s influence over the Shiite fighters who have been key to containing the militants in Iraq.
In contrast, the US-led air coalition which has been attacking IS 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.
Mr Soleimani was directing operations on the eastern flank from a village about 55 kilometres from Tikrit called Albu Rayash, captured from IS two days ago.
With him were two Iraqi Shiite paramilitary leaders: the leader of the Hashid Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, and Hadi al-Amiri who leads the Badr Organisation, a powerful Shiite militia.
“[Soleimani] was standing on top of a hill pointing with his hands towards the areas where IS are still operating,” a witness who was accompanying security forces said.