Iraqi forces battle Islamic State for Tikrit on two fronts

Updated: 2015-03-13 11:19


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Iraqi forces battle Islamic State for Tikrit on two fronts

A general view of the city of Tikrit as smoke rises during clashes between the Islamic State militants and Shi'ite forces March 12, 2015. Iraqi security forces and mainly Shi'ite militia exchanged fire sporadically with Islamic State fighters in Tikrit on Thursday, day after they pushed into Saddam Hussein's home city in their biggest offensive yet against the militants. [Photo/Agencies]

On Thursday, militiamen were heard intercepting IS walkie-talkie signals, listening to the militants' call for reinforcements and ordering mortar fire on the soldiers as they closed in. Along the route between Salahuddin's command center and the battlefield, charred remains of tankers and cars used by suicide bombers litter the roads, and homes bear signs of months of war, damaged by bombs and bullets.

Military officials told the AP they are advancing with caution in an effort to limit damage to the city's infrastructure, so that residents can return quickly once Tikrit is retaken. A satellite image of Tikrit, released last month by the United Nations, showed that at least 536 buildings in Tikrit have been affected by fighting, with at least 137 completely destroyed and 241 severely damaged.

Earlier Thursday, al-Obeidi visited troops and met with senior military commanders of the Tikrit operation as well as Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard. Soleimani and other Iranian advisers have played a key role in Iraq in pushing the Islamic State back in recent months.

The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shiite militias in the campaign have raised fears of possible sectarian cleansing should Tikrit, an overwhelmingly Sunni city, fall to the government troops.

The United States, which spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq's army during its eight-year intervention, has said its allied coalition carrying out airstrikes targeting the extremists has not been involved in the ongoing Tikrit offensive.

In November, President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more American troops to bolster Iraqi forces, which could more than double the total number of US forces to 3,100. None has a combat role.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has appealed for more aid for his country's beleaguered ground forces, although the US spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq's army during its eight-year occupation.

The growing Iraqi impatience in many ways stems from concerns about the speed and success of the Islamic State's advance, and the Baghdad government's inexperience in handling a security crisis of this magnitude. Until recently, Iraqi security forces were focused on protecting themselves and the population against insurgent bombings and other attacks.

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