Government forces are ready for an assault on the Sunni Arab city of Tikrit, the main target of a major offensive launched eight days ago against the Islamic State radical group, Iraqi officials said Tuesday.
Troops have surrounded the city on all sides after capturing the centre of al-Alam, located a few kilometres north of Tikrit on the opposite bank of the Tigris river, provincial security committee head Jasim al-Jabbara said.
The army commander in the Salah al-Din region, meanwhile, said all preparations for the assault on Tikrit were ready with US-made Abrams tanks and armoured personnel carriers in position.
“We don’t expect combat in the city because most members of Daesh [Islamic State] have fled to Kirkuk province and on to Nineveh province,” General Abdul-Wahhab al-Sa’idi said.
But he warned that progress into the city would be slow because of “thousands” of bombs planted by the radicals in the city and on its approach roads.
Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite militias last week started a major push to clear Tikrit and nearby areas of Islamic State radicals, who have held them since overrunning much of Sunni Arab northern and western Iraq in June last year.
The city is symbolic as the home of former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s last Sunni ruler before he was ousted in a US-led invasion in 2003.
The offensive also meets a key demand made by the Shiite forces, who are seeking revenge for the apparent mass execution by Islamic State of up to 1,200 Shiite army recruits whom it captured as they sought to flee a nearby army base last year.
The United States estimated that Shiite militias make up two-thirds of the government force.
Their prominent role in the campaign has raised concerns because of repeated allegations that they have previously committed atrocities against Sunni civilians.
The offensive, however, has also been welcomed by Sunni leaders in the region.
Unlike previous government offensives, the current operation has not received air support from the US-led coalition against Islamic State. SAPA