KIRKUK, IRAQ // Iraqi forces closed in on Tikrit on Tuesday, their progress slowed by militant snipers and booby traps, on the second day of Baghdad’s largest operation yet against ISIL.
The government has mobilised a 30,000-strong force – made up of Shiite militiamen, Sunni tribesmen as well as troops and police – in a bid to retake Tikrit.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the extremists who have held Tikrit since June 2014 have been resorting to guerrilla tactics to disrupt the government’s advance.
“They are using urban warfare and snipers, so we are advancing in a cautious and delicate way, and we need more time,” a lieutenant general on the ground said.
Iraqi forces are moving on Tikrit from three directions, with units targeting the towns of Al Alam and Ad Dawr to the north and south, while another large contingent enters the city from the east.
“We are close to Ad Dawr, but Daesh is still in the centre,” the officer said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
ISIL claimed on Tuesday that a US national from its ranks had carried out a suicide attack against Iraqi forces near Samarra, the other main city in Salaheddin province.
The attacker was referred to by his nom de guerre, Abu Dawud Al Amriki.
The operation, the Iraqi government’s largest since it started attempting to regain the ground it lost to the militants last summer, was announced by prime minister Haider Al Abadi on Sunday.
Both Iraqi and Iranian media said Major General Qassem Suleimani – the commander of the Al Quds Force covert operations unit of Tehran’s elite Revolutionary Guards – was in Salaheddin province to help coordinate operations.
Military commanders have said Tikrit is a stepping stone for an even more ambitious operation aimed at retaking Mosul, the large northern city which has been the main Iraq hub of ISIL.
The battle for Tikrit, which the government has already tried and failed to retake several times, is seen as a test of how effectively such diverse fighting units work together.
Also on Tuesday, the commander of US Central Command said the US-led military coalition in Iraq has killed more than 8,500 ISIL fighters since its bombing campaign began in August.
Army General Lloyd Austin said ISIL is no longer capable of seizing and holding new territory.
* Agence France-Presse, Associated Press