Nearly 30,000 people have been displaced in the four days since the offensive began to retake Tikrit. An estimated 2.5 million Iraqis have fled since "Islamic State" started taking territory in the region.
According to figures released by the United Nations on Thursday, 28,000 people have become displaced since the Iraq army launched its offensive against "Islamic State" (IS) militants to take back the city of Tikrit on Monday, March 2.
"Military operations in and around Tikrit have precipitated displacement of an estimated 28,000 people to Samarra," the UN said, adding, "Field reports indicate that additional displacements are underway and that yet more families remain stuck at checkpoints."
Around 30,000 Iraqi and allied soldiers launched Monday's operation, the largest of its kind since IS militants captured vast areas of territory last June, which so far has displaced a total of 2.5 million people, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Of the 30,000 troops in the Iraqi operation, around two-thirds were Iranian-based Shiite militia men, US General Martin Dempsey said on Wednesday, adding that Iran could play a "positive" role in Tikrit.
"This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things," Dempsey told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism."
Concerns over sectarian violence
There is concern that the involvement of Iranian Shiite militiamen could exacerbate sectarian violence even further; revenge killings targeting Sunni Arabs have been known to happen in the past.
"We have urged all Iraqi forces to avoid and prevent the abuse to civilians of any kind of activity that violates international norms, fuels sectarian fears, and promotes sectarian divides, and that includes Iran in terms of their activities," US Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday in Riyadh.
A joint news conference with Kerry, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, voiced dismay over rival Iran's involvement: "Tikrit is a prime example of what we are worried about. Iran is taking over the country."
Forces are reported to be moving in on Tikrit - 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Baghdad - from several directions, with the plan being to encircle the militants. Commanders say the operation in Tikrit is a stepping stone for the mission to free Mosul, a major hub for IS and the largest town within its self-declared caliphate.
sb/gsw (AFP, AP)