The Iraqi army, supported by Shia fighters, is laying “full siege” to the city of Tikrit where Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group fighters are now surrounded, according to Iraq’s defence minister.
The Iraqi military – backed by at least 20,000 Shia fighters – has been fighting to regain control of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, one of several predominantly Sunni towns to fall to ISIL last year.
Operations to recapture Tikrit have been on hold for nearly a week, with Khaled al-Obeidi, the Iraqi defence minister, saying the army was trying to minimise casualties by not rushing the final assault.
“When we see that the time is right for the Tikrit alliance, we will storm in as quickly as possible,” he said.
“Tikrit is under full siege. We are taking caution to not take any losses and to protect civilians in the city.
“The terrorists are surrounded inside the city and their morale is low. When the right moment comes, we will storm the city without any resistance or losses.”
The Tikrit siege is one of the first major operations in which the US-led coalition is not taking part, with US officials saying they were not asked to participate.
Against the backdrop of the Tikrit siege, the head of a Shia armed group has criticised the Iraqi army, saying it has asked for coalition air strikes to help retake the city.
Hadi al-Ameri’s remarks on Sunday pointed to a possible divide between the Iraqi army and Shia units, most of which are made up of fighters.
While the US has been working to train Iraqi military brigades, it has not worked with the Shia groups, since doing so would bring them uncomfortably close to Iran, which offers significant assistance to the groups.
John Brennan, CIA director, said having the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force direct Iraqi forces against ISIL is complicating the US mission.
In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Brennan described General Qassem Soleimani as being “very aggressive and active” in advising the Shia militias, adding that he “wouldn’t consider Iran an ally right now inside Iraq”.
Iranian advisers have played a prominent role on the front lines of Iraq’s Salahuddin province.
If Iraqi forces are unable to push ISIL back and recover lost territory, US President Barack Obama would be faced with a choice of accepting failure in Iraq or committing US combat troops – something both US and Iraqi officials have spoken firmly against. SAPA