Tikrit offensive on hold as Iraq forces await reinforcements
BAGHDAD - Iraqi forces and mainly Shi'ite militia battling to wrest full control of the city of Tikrit from Islamic State militants paused their offensive for a second day on Saturday as they awaited reinforcements.
A source in the local military command centre said military commanders had "reached a decision to halt the operation until a suitable, carefully set plan is in place" to break into central Tikrit.
The source, speaking by phone from near Tikrit, said the Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias known as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) were waiting for reinforcements from "well-trained forces". He did not give a timeline for the arrival of the reinforcements.
"We do not need a large number, just one or two thousand. We need professional personnel and soldiers," he said, explaining they were needed to engage in street-by-street battles with Islamic State fighters who have booby-trapped buildings in the city and laid improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs.
Army and militia forces pushed into Saddam Hussein's home city this week in their biggest drive yet against the insurgents who seized large swathes of land in Iraq and neighbouring Syria last year in a lightning campaign halted just outside Baghdad.
More than 20,000 troops and allied militias entered the city about 160 km (100 miles) north of the capital on Wednesday after retaking towns to the south and north in a campaign launched nearly two weeks ago.
Security officials say a network of explosives and sniper attacks are slowing the further advance of Iraqi troops. The insurgents still hold around half of the city, including central districts and a complex of palaces built by Saddam, the executed former Iraqi leader.
Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashemi said it would not be possible for Iraqi forces and militia fighters to clear the many buildings in Tikrit rigged by IS fighters with explosives and said airpower would be needed to do so.
North of Tikrit in the town of al-Malha near the Beiji oil refinery, IS fighters attacked police and Hashid Shaabi forces and clashes were continuing, local police said.
Victory for Iraq's Shi'ite-led government in Tikrit against the Sunni insurgents would set the tone for a broader confrontation in Mosul, the largest city in the north.
Amid the push to assert full control of Tikrit, Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by Shi'ite militia fighters, have been attacking Islamic State-held towns and villages south and west of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, peshmerga sources said.
On Saturday, the peshmerga were unable to enter the Shi'ite Turkman village of Bashir, 20 km south of Kirkuk, due to roadside bombs and snipers, but made slow advances and captured some villages to the southwest of the city, the officials said.
Those advances, unlike the Tikrit battle to the southwest, have been backed by sustained air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition.
In and around Tikrit, the battle is being waged by thousands of fighters loyal to Shi'ite militias backed by Iran.
Islamic State insurgents continue to fight back elsewhere in Iraq in territory they seized last year.
In Ramadi, about 90 km west of Baghdad, two suicide car bombers attacked security personnel positions, killing two policemen, a police source said. The attacks were followed by clashes between IS fighters and Iraqi security forces in the city centre, he added.
And on the outskirts of Samarra, a sacred Shi'ite city being used as a rear base for the Tikrit offensive further north, militants attacked an Iraqi army unit on Friday, two security officials said. One said 11 soldiers had been captured by the militants while the second said some soldiers had gone missing.