Tikrit liberated from ISIL, declares Iraqi PM
TIKRIT // Iraq on Tuesday declared it had retaken Tikrit city – its biggest victory yet in the battle against ISIL.
Prime minister Haider Al Abadi “announces the liberation of Tikrit and congratulates Iraqi security forces and popular volunteers on the historic milestone”, his official Twitter account said .
But the US-led coalition that has been aiding troops with airstrikes said parts of Tikrit were still under ISIL control.
“There is still work to be done,” Maj Kim Michelsen said.
The operation to retake the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein began on March 2 and had looked uncertain before Iraqi forces made rapid advances over the past 48 hours, helped by security and allied forces backed by US-led coalition aircraft.
Iraqiya state television showed footage of houses previously used by ISIL in liberated areas but it was not clear whether any pockets of resistance remained.
The provincial government headquarters was retaken on Monday and on Tuesday the Iraqi flag replaced the black ISIL flag on the building.
Minutes before Mr Abadi’s tweet, his spokesman Rafid Jaboori said: “Iraqi forces reached the centre of Tikrit, raised the Iraqi flag and are now clearing the city.”
Iraqi military officials have been saying since the start of the operation that ISIL fighters had laid thousands of bombs in streets, houses and tunnels to make their last stand.
There was no immediate information on how many fighters were killed, wounded or captured in the fighting.
The government has not provided any casualty figures since the operation started a month ago.
Iraqi army and police forces, as well as volunteers and Iran-backed Shiite militias, completely surrounded Tikrit within two weeks of launching the operation.
There was a lull in fighting when government and allied forces apparently balked at the number of snipers, booby traps, berms and trenches which ISIL used to defend its position in the city centre.
Iran was Baghdad’s top foreign partner in the early stages of the operation but Iraqi air force strikes were proving insufficient to break the back of ISIL resistance, and Mr Abadi’s government eventually requested strikes from the US-led coalition. Washington had been assisting Iraqi forces elsewhere in the country since August last year.
On March 25, US jets began bombing ISIL targets in Tikrit. France also took part in the campaign.
The move sparked a freeze in the participation of the Popular Mobilisation units, an umbrella organisation for volunteers and militias which accounted for the bulk of the manpower involved in the Tikrit battle.
The Pentagon had expressed unease at the role played by Iran and its proxies in the battle and said it conditioned its intervention on regular forces taking the lead.
On Friday, it hailed the withdrawal from the fight of “those Shiite militias who are linked to, infiltrated by, [or] otherwise under the influence of Iran”.
But after declaring that they did not want to work with each other, both sides took part in the Tikrit operation this week.
Tikrit, which once had an estimated population of around 200,000, had been largely emptied of civilians by the time the government operation was launched at the start of March.
The fate of those believed to have remained in the city was unclear on Tuesday.
Thousands of people displaced last year or more recently from Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital, have started returning to their homes in outlying areas that have been liberated.
But the level of destruction Tikrit is believed to have suffered and the threat posed by unexploded bombs mean residents of the city itself could take longer to return.
Tikrit holds both strategic and symbolic importance.
It was the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, remnants of whose Baath party collaborated with ISIL last summer.
Iraqi forces had since June tried and failed several times to retake the city, seen as a key stepping stone to recapturing Mosul, the militant group’s largest hub in Iraq.
* Agence France-Presse