Iraq claims victory over ISIS in Tikrit, but US military official says ‘block-to-block … – Fox News

Iraq’s defense minister said security forces have achieved a “magnificent victory” over Islamic State fighters in Tikrit Wednesday, but a senior defense official told Fox News that the fighting is “block to block, especially in the northern part of Tikrit where ISIS still has fighters.”

Khalid al-Obeidi said Wednesday that security forces have “accomplished their mission” in the monthlong offensive to rid Saddam Hussein’s hometown of the militant group.

“We have the pleasure, with all our pride, to announce the good news of a magnificent victory,” Obeidi said in a video statement. “Here we come to you, Anbar! Here we come to you, Nineveh, and we say it with full resolution, confidence, and persistence,” naming other provinces under the sway of the extremists.

Despite the claim, “Iraqi security forces are still fighting block to block in some cases, particularly in the northern part of Tikrit,” a Pentagon official told Fox News. “This operation is still in the clearing stage.”

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in the region told Fox News that the statement from Obeidi was “probably a little misleading,” but added, “we are confident that Tikrit has been seized from ISIS.”

Both officials said the coalition could not estimate how many militants are left in Tikrit, but described ISIS as “scattered.”

“The fire is out, but some embers remain,” said the spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force.

Militant mortar fire, which had been intense over previous days, fell silent Wednesday, with commanders saying only a few militant snipers remained in the city. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.

The U.S. launched airstrikes last week in support of Iraqi ground forces. The battle for Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, is seen as a key step toward eventually driving the militants out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The road to Mosul extends another 150 miles to the north, and the Islamic State group still controls much of the vast Anbar province to the west.

Iraqi forces, including soldiers, police officers, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes, launched a large-scale operation to recapture Tikrit on March 2. Last week, the United States launched airstrikes on the embattled city at the request of the Iraqi government.

Tikrit is the hometown of Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated dictatorship ruled Iraq for more than two decades before it was toppled by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Since then the Sunni minority has felt increasingly marginalized by the Shiite majority and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. In 2006, long-running tensions boiled over into sectarian violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The Islamic State was able to rally Sunni support by portraying its advance as a “revolution” against the Shiite-led government, and Tikrit fell in a matter of days last June as the security forces crumbled. Restoring security in the city will be a major test of the government’s ability to stitch the country back together.

The objective now, Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban said Wednesday, is to restore normalcy as quickly as possible.

“After clearing the area from roadside bombs and car bombs, we will reopen police stations to restore normalcy in the city, and we will form committees to supervise the return of people displaced from their homes,” al-Ghabban said. He said the government will help displaced residents return and that a civil defense unit will be combing the city for roadside bombs and car bombs.

“Daesh is completely defeated,” he added, using an Arabic name for the group.

During a visit to Tikrit, Iraqi Prime Minsiter Haider al-Abadi said that military engineering units still need more time to clear the city from booby traps. He also waved an Iraqi flag in photos posted on his social media accounts.

“God’s willing, there will be a fund to rebuild areas destroyed by Daesh and the war. Tikrit and Salahuddin areas will be covered by this fund,” al-Abadi said.

A satellite image of Tikrit, released in February by the United Nations, showed at least 536 buildings in the city have been affected by the fighting. Of those, at least 137 were completely destroyed and 241 were severely damaged. The current offensive also exacerbated previous damage, particularly in the south, where clashes have been the most intense in recent days.

Iraq’s parliament speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, called on the government to find the means to resettle residents from damaged Tikrit buildings. He said this “requires effort and support by the central government in order to financially support the people in rebuilding their houses.”

Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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