Thousands of Iraqi civilians flee as Tikrit battle intensifies

Thousands of Iraqi civilians flee as Tikrit battle intensifies
The UN say at least 28,000 have been forced to leave their homes in and around Tikrit as the battle to retake the Iraqi city from IS extremists moves closer to residential areas.
3 min read
05 March, 2015
Iraqi Army and volunteer fighters battle IS in Saladin on March 2, 2015. [Anadolu]

Military operations aimed at retaking the Iraqi city of Tikrit have caused around 28,000 people to flee their homes, the United Nations said on Thursday.

"Military operations in and around Tikrit have precipitated displacement of an estimated 28,000 people to Samarra," a UN statement said.   

"Field reports indicate that additional displacements are underway and that yet more families remain stuck at checkpoints," it added. 

Some 30,000 Iraqi security forces members and allied fighters launched an operation to retake Tikrit on Monday, the largest of its kind since Islamic State (IS) group forces overran swathes of territory last June. 

Retaking Tikrit from militants who have had over eight months to dig in poses a major challenge for the country's forces. 

An 'Iraqi-led' operation 

US Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Wednesday about Iraqi-led operations in Tikrit, the White House said.  

The US-led coalition fighting IS militants has not played a role in the battle in Tikrit, Instead, it has been led by Iraqi military officials in coordination with Iran's military. 

Biden commended Abadi and Iraqi leaders for "building a national front before launching the ongoing operation near Tikrit," the White House said in a statement. 

"He also noted the Iraqi government’s efforts to enable fighters from Salah ah Din to participate in reclaiming their own territory" from Islamic State militants, the White House said. 

The military push in the mainly Sunni Muslim region around Tikrit has involved thousands of Shia militia, and there were concerns by some that it could inflame sectarian tensions.

Sectarian-fuelled revenge killings targeting Sunni Arabs have been a feature of past operations involving such  militias, raising concerns that the same may happen in Tikrit. 

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the operation was "a multi-sectarian force" that included fighters from local Sunni tribes and was supported by the Sunni governor of the Salah Ah Din province. 

"We have said from the beginning that the United States will not coordinate militarily with the Iranians," Earnest said. "But the fact that some Iranian military personnel are involved doesn't change the priority that the Iraqis can and should place on this operation to ensure that it's inclusive and multi-sectarian." 

Asked during a daily press briefing whether the fight in Tikrit was a "dress rehearsal" for an attack to recapture the city of Mosul, Earnest said that Iraqi forces would lead the Mosul offensive at a time chosen by Iraqi leaders. 

"We would expect that any sort of operation on Mosul would also be multi-sectarian," Earnest said, noting that fight could include support from the U.S.-led coalition. 

"I do think we would envision a scenario where an operation against Mosul would certainly have the possibility of being backed by coalition airstrikes," he said.