BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces battled Islamic State jihadists making what looked increasingly like a last stand in Tikrit, but the group responded by vowing to expand its “caliphate.”
Thousands of fighters surrounded a few hundred IS holdouts, pounding their positions with helicopter and artillery strikes Friday but treading carefully to avoid the thousands of bombs littering the city center.
Two days after units spearheading Baghdad’s biggest anti-IS operation yet pushed deep into Tikrit, a police colonel claimed around 50 percent of the city was now back in government hands.
“We are surrounding the gunmen in the city centre. We’re advancing slowly due to the great number of IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” he told Agence France-Presse.
“We estimate there are 10,000 IEDs in the city,” he said.
Massively outnumbered, the jihadists are defending themselves with a network of booby traps, roadside bombs and snipers, with suicide attackers occasionally ramming car bombs into enemy targets.
“Six soldiers were killed and 11 wounded in a suicide car bomb this morning in Al-Dyum neighbourhood,” the colonel said. An army major confirmed the death toll.
Tikrit was the hometown of dictator Saddam Hussein, remnants of whose Baath party collaborated with the jihadists when they took over almost a third of the country last June.
With crucial military backing from neighbouring Iran and a 60-nation US-led coalition, Baghdad has rolled back some of the losses.
It started by securing the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and bolstering Baghdad’s defences, then worked its way north, retaking Diyala province earlier this year.
Commanders see the recapture of overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Tikrit as a stepping stone for the reconquest of Mosul further north, which once had a population of two million.
But progress is slow and foreign training needed before Iraqi forces can take on Iraq’s second city.
CIA Director John Brennan Friday suggested the United States was cooperating indirectly with arch-foe Iran to defeat the jihadists.
“There’s an alignment of some interests between ourselves and Iran” when it comes to fighting IS, he said.
“We work closely with the Iraqi government. The Iranians work closely with the Iraqi government as well,” he said.
IS has countered every military loss lately by ramping up its propaganda war with ever more shocking acts, such as a boy apparently executing a prisoner on camera, and destroying priceless archaeological heritage sites.