Iraqi offensive on Tikrit stalled, amid building evidence of chlorine

The mayor of a town on the northern edge of Tikrit said that storage containers filled with chlorine were found by troops and mainly Shiite militiamen when they entered Al Alam last week
A Sunni fighter who has joined Shiite militia groups known collectively as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), allied with Iraqi forces against the ISIL, walks along a street in Al Alam Salahuddin province on March 15, 2015. Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
A Sunni fighter who has joined Shiite militia groups known collectively as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), allied with Iraqi forces against the ISIL, walks along a street in Al Alam Salahuddin province on March 15, 2015. Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

BAGHDAD // ISIL fighters traded sniper fire and mortar rounds with Iraqi troops and allied Shiite militia forces on Sunday in the city of Tikrit amid reports the militants had used chlorine as a chemical weapon elsewhere in the country earlier this year.

An Iraqi officer said that coalition air strikes are needed to retake Tikrit, where the militants are defending their last redoubt with trenches, sandbags.

Adding more tensions to the battle, Iraqi Kurdish authorities had said on Saturday that they had proof ISIL militants occupying large parts of the country’s north and west used chlorine against Kurdish peshmerga fighters in January in a car bombing attempt west of the city of Mosul.

The Baghdad government has not issued a statement on the semi-autonomous Kurdish region’s announcement.

But the mayor of a town on the northern edge of Tikrit said that storage containers filled with chlorine were found by troops and mainly Shiite militiamen when they entered Al Alam last week, the day before they fought their way into Tikrit.

“We found a number of storage units containing chlorine that we think were seized by Daesh from water purification stations in different parts of Tikrit,” Laith Al Jubouri said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. He said security forces had sealed off the area where the containers were found and alerted Baghdad authorities.

On Tuesday, when Iraqi forces and allied militias pushed ISIL fighters out of the town Iraqi police instructed onlookers to stand back and hold their breath as they detonated a roadside bomb they suspected contained chlorine.

When they detonated the bomb, a yellowish plume burst into the air, and as bystanders coughed, officials shouted “be careful, it’s chlorine!”

The statement from Kurdish authorities about ISIL’s use of chlorine referred to footage of “similar attacks” during the recent fighting around Tikrit, though the mayor and another security official only noted the presence of stockpiles of chlorine found in areas recently seized back from ISIL.

The military campaign to retake Tikrit has been stalled since Friday, when security officials said Iraqi forces and their militia allies would wait for reinforcements before moving forward.

On Sunday, Iraqi officers said Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab Al Saadi said he had asked the defence ministry to request coalition involvement but “no air support” from foreign allies had yet been provided.

Asked if US-led coalition air strikes were needed, Gen Al Saadi said: “Of course... the Americans have advanced equipment, they have AWACS (surveillance) aircraft.

“They are able to locate the targets exactly” and carry out accurate strikes, he said.

“With the advanced technology of the aircraft and weapons they have, of course (strikes) by them are necessary,” Gen Al Saadi said.

Gen Al Saadi said that support from the Iraqi air force had been “limited” and not always sufficiently accurate.

Fighters from the Imam Ali Brigade, a Shiite militia involved in the Tikrit operation, complained that a Sukhoi jet had even bombed pro-government forces by mistake.

With little backup officials continued to stress the challenges they faced in flushing out militants in street-by-street battles and defusing bombs and booby traps they laid while retreating from parts of the city.

“There were no new pushes today from either side, only scattered skirmishes in the northern and southern parts of the city,” Colonel Mohammed Abid Al Jubouri said after visiting the southern edge of Tikrit on Sunday.

Col Al Jubouri said the process of “organising troops and waiting for reinforcements” was ongoing and did not say when a fresh effort to seize the central districts of the city still held by ISIL would begin. The militants still hold about half the city, which lies about 160km north of Baghdad.

The effort to retake Saddam Hussein’s home city from the militants who overran it last year has been the biggest offensive yet against the group that has declared a caliphate on territory it controls in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Meanwhile, dozens of fighters with the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr left Iraq’s capital on Sunday to take part in an offensive to retake Tikrit. Men from Iraq’s Peace Brigade left to the Shiite holy city of Samarra. About a dozen heavily armed lorries packed with fighters left Baghdad earlier Sunday.

“We are travelling to help the community of Muslims and to help the people of Iraq,” said Ali Al Mousawi, a spokesman for the brigade.

Mr Al Sadr, who comes from a line of influential Shiite clerics, heads the militia previously known as the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary force he formed in 2003 in a show of resistance against the US-led occupation of Iraq.

Last month, he announced that he would withdraw the Peace Brigade from fighting in a “show of goodwill” following accusations that the militias were responsible for battlefield atrocities.

* Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse

Published: March 15, 2015 04:00 AM

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