Baghdad (Alliance News) – Iraqi government forces Tuesday said they had gained ground in a major offensive aimed at recapturing the city of Tikrit and other areas along the Tigris river north of Baghdad from Islamic State.
Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had taken the Hamrin district east of Tikrit and two villages east of Dur from the jihadists.
The reported gains suggest that government forces are advancing through mainly desert areas to the east towards the Tigris.
Iraqi state television said that the army had also surrounded the Qadisiyyeh district on the northern outskirts of Tikrit, the hometown of former ruler Saddam Hussein.
Officials have said some 30,000 members of the security forces and mainly Shiite volunteers are taking part in the operation, which was launched at dawn on Monday.
Large numbers of Shiite militias are also thought to be involved in the operation, despite repeated allegations that they been responsible for abuses against civilians in other Sunni areas.
It is the largest offensive to be undertaken by the Iraqi government since Islamic State overran large areas of Sunni Arab northern and western .
Unlike previous offensives, the Iraqi forces have not been supported with airstrikes by the US-led alliance against Islamic State.
The Washington Post Monday quoted US officials as saying that had not informed them of the operation or requested support.
Update: (5:40 A.M)
Al Jazeera – Iraqi forces have continued their offensive to retake the city of Tikrit, seized by the Islamic State of and the Levant (ISIL) last June, with troops claiming “gains” in the fighting, security forces told Al Jazeera’s correspondent.
Citing state media and security sources, Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said an ISIL leader for south Tikrit had been killed and that other ISIL officials had retreated through Huweijah and on into the Hamreen mountains.
“It’s a huge mountain range on the border between Iran and and traditionally where fighters have hidden,” she said, adding that these reports could not be independently verified.
Our correspondent said: “They [Iraqi forces] are saying that they’re making progress in those … fronts in which they are fighting around the edges of Tikrit.
“They haven’t yet gone into Tikrit. That’s really because this is going to be a difficult fight, and that is because it is the biggest city they have tried to take back and it’s full of ISIL fighters and is laid with explosives and that is one of the major worries.”
Arraf said Iraqi troops had seized towns and villages along the way to Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province.
“There is still fighting along the edges and there is a huge Iranian component [involved].
“Sources on the ground tell us General Qassem Soleimani is actually on the ground directing the fight along with the military and Iranian-backed militias.
“So it is a very complicated fight,” our correspondent said, referring to the senior Iranian army officer involved in the offensive.
Both Iraqi and Iranian media said Soleimani – the commander of the Quds Force covert operations unit of Tehran’s elite Revolutionary Guards – was in Salahuddin to help coordinate operations.
‘Certain of victory’
Government forces have battled their way north for months, notching up key victories against ISIL, but Tikrit has been their toughest target yet, with the fighters having resisted them several times.
Commanders voiced hope the operation would be a step towards the recapture of Mosul, the fighters’ main hub in , although a US envoy leading an international coalition against ISIL said no timeline should be imposed.
“The army, federal police, Popular Mobilisation [volunteer] units, and the sons of Salahuddin’s tribes are performing the duties of liberation in the largest operation against Daesh since June,” said a senior army officer on the ground, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
“We are certain of victory … but the operation is not easy,” the officer told the AFP news agency.
The operation to retake Tikrit followed an announcement by Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi on Sunday.
Military sources said warplanes were involved, but the Pentagon said they excluded those of the US-led coalition fighting ISIL.