TIKRIT, Iraq – Rockets and mortars echoed across Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit on Thursday as Iraqi security forces clashed with Islamic State militants a day after sweeping into the Sunni city north of Baghdad.
Recapturing Tikrit is seen as a key step toward rolling back the extremist group, which seize much of northern and western Iraq last summer and controls around a third of Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi troops and allied Shiite militiamen entered Tikrit for the first time Wednesday from the north and south. The head of the military operation on Thursday told The Associated Press that troops would launch phase two of the offensive later in the day as they try to reach the city centre. He spoke anonymously as he’s not authorized to brief the media.
Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi visited the troops Thursday and met with senior military commanders of the Tikrit operation as well as Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Soleimani and other Iranian advisers have played a key role in pushing the militants back in recent months.
Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, sits on the Tigris River about 130 kilometres north of Baghdad. Several of Saddam’s palaces remain there, and supporters of the deceased dictator are believed to have played a key role in the Islamic State group’s seizure of the city last year.
U.S. troops rapidly overran Tikrit during the 2003 invasion but then faced years of insurgent attacks, a scenario that could be repeated if Iraq’s own largely Shiite forces capture the Sunni city. Iraqi troops are already coming under sniper fire and finding roads heavily mined.