Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite militias seized large parts of Tikrit on Tuesday, amid reports that most of the Islamic State militants battling to hold the city had begun retreating, security officials said.
The progress came after more than a week of heavy fighting to retake Tikrit, a city in the so-called Sunni Triangle that holds both strategic and emotional importance in the effort to roll back the Islamic State’s lightning advance toward Baghdad in June.
The offensive is the largest pro-goverment military operation yet, involving a combined force of more than 30,000. And if it succeeds, it would be a significant step in the march north to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and an early conquest for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Still, previous announcements of victory for the Iraqi government have been reversed before, notably in parts of Anbar Province and at an oil refinery near the city of Baiji. And already, the government offensive has exposed tensions in the American-Iraqi alliance.
So far, the United States-led international coalition has sat out the battle for Tikrit, with American officials saying they were uncomfortable with the prominent role of Shiite militias and Iranian military officials in taking a predominantly Sunni city.
Rafid Jaboori, the spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said in a recent interview that despite the lack of direct American involvement in Tikrit, the United States would have “a significant role” in any operation to take Mosul, as would Kurdish pesh merga forces. He noted, too, that the United States and Iran shared an interest in seeing the Islamic State defeated.
Officials of the Salahuddin Province military command center said Tuesday evening that the pro-government forces in Tikrit had advanced within yards of central buildings, including the provincial council and governor’s office, and had surrounded the palaces of Saddam Hussein on the edge of town. In recent days, Islamic State fighters had posted pictures to social media showing them cavorting on the grounds.
The Iraqi security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing military operation, said they believed most of the Islamic State fighters had begun withdrawing from Tikrit because the pro-government forces met little resistance by the end of the day. But they were proceeding cautiously because of fears of traps and suicide bombers.
There was strong resistance in the northern neighborhood of Qadisiya earlier in the day, and Islamic State fighters bombed a bridge leading north to the village of Alam to slow the advance of pro-government forces, the officials said.
One concern surrounding the operation is that Shiite militiamen might seek to take revenge on Sunni residents around Tikrit, as happened with earlier militia victories in Diyala Province. Tikrit carries a particular risk, because it was at nearby Camp Speicher that the Islamic State massacred more than 1,000 Shiite soldiers. Leading Shiite clerics have called on the militias to act with restraint as they advance.