Backed by allied Shia, Sunni and Iranian fighters, Iraqi security forces launched a major military operation Monday to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the Islamic State extremist group, a major step in a campaign to reclaim territory in northern Iraq controlled by the militants.
But hours into the operation, a key test for the embattled Iraqi army, the military said it still hadn’t entered the city of Tikrit, indicating a long battle ahead.
State-run Al-Iraqiya television said that forces were attacking Tikrit from multiple directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi jets. It said the militants were dislodged from some areas outside the city. Several hours into the op, it gave no additional details.
The military commander of Salahuddin region, Genera; Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, told state TV the operation was “going on as planned,” with fighting taking place outside eastern Tikrit.
“Until this moment we have not entered the city,” al-Saadi said. “God willing, we will enter, but we need some time as planned. ... God willing, victory will be achieved and Salahuddin will be turned into a grave for all terrorist groups”.
Tikrit, provincial capital of Salauhddin province, 130km north of Baghdad, fell to IS last summer, along with the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and other areas in the Sunni heartland.
Tikrit is one of the largest cities held by IS and lies on the road connecting Baghdad to Mosul. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces have a major supply link for any future operation to retake Mosul.
US military officials said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops.