Iraqi forces advance into Tikrit as IS fighters retreat
Iraqi forces continued their gradual advance into Tikrit on Thursday, with Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) militants on the backfoot in Saddam Hussein's hometown.
Iraqi pro-government forces, a combination of the Iraqi army and largely Shia volunteer militias, began their assault at the start of the month, and commanders are now emphasising that the advance will not be rushed.
“We don't want to be rushed because we want to avoid casualties,” Police Staff Major Bahaa al-Azzawi told AFP in Albu Ajil, a village near Tikrit. “Tikrit is sealed off from all sides.”
Government forces have forced the few hundred IS militants fighting into Tikrit's centre.
Sporadic shelling of IS positions in Tikrit by government forces continued on Thursday.
Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of the volunteer militia called the Popular Mobilisation units (Hashd), said that IS would not be able to break out of Tikrit.
“They have two choices, surrender or death,” said Ameri, who also heads the Badr organisation, which is one of the largest Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and controls the interior ministry.
Although Sunni militias, largely drawn from local tribes, are fighting with government forces, a large proportion of the volunteer militias are Shia, something that has raised fears in Tikrit and other Sunni-majority areas.
It is feared that some Shia fighters will seek to avenge atrocities committed by IS by attacking Sunnis, and videos have emerged of Shia militias destroying Sunni properties in villages outside Tikrit.
Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi had previously undertook to fight sectarianism, and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staff also highlighted the importance of including Sunnis in the fight against IS.
“The important thing about this operation in Tikrit in my view is less about how the military aspect of it goes and more about what follows,” Dempsey told reporters ahead of his visit to Iraq last Monday. “Because if the Sunni population is then allowed to continue to live its life the way it wants to, and can come back to their homes... then I think we're in a really good place.”