The Iraqi army is gathering its forces for a final advance into the city of Tikrit to free it from the hands of jihadi militants. But the troops are meeting with some fierce resistance.
Iraqi forces and mainly Shiite militia continued to surround the central city of Tikrit on Saturday as they plan their final drive to retake the town from jihadist militants belonging to the "Islamic State" (IS) group.
Army commanders say a further advance into the strategic city - the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein - is being hampered by thousands of bombs planted by the Sunni jihadists to defend the city, as well as by sniper fire and suicide car bomb attacks.
Iraqi forces on Friday pounded "IS" positions with artillery and helicopter strikes, but have so far made little headway on the ground.
The current Iraqi army offensive is the largest-scale effort so far undertaken to retake the city after several previous tries failed. More than 20,000 troops and allied forces entered the city on Wednesday as part of a campaign launched nearly two weeks ago to recapture territory in northern Iraq lost to "IS" during a lightning jihadist offensive last summer.
Establishing control over Tikrit, which is about 160 km (100 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad, would facilitate a further advance on Mosul, Iraq's second city, which is also in the hands of the jihadists.
Disparate fighting force
The operation is also being seen as a test of Iraq's ability to weld a disciplined fighting force from the various groups, including Iranian-backed Shiite militias, that are assisting the army in the offensive.
Shiite militias have been accused of taking revenge on Sunnis living in the recaptured areas, raising fears of a return to an all-out sectarian conflict in Iraq.
In a report released late on Friday, activist group Human Rights Watch said both government forces and allied militias had also "engaged in deliberate destruction of civilian property" after retaking the Turkmen town of Amerli in September.
"IS" has also captured large parts northern Syria, but recent territorial losses in both countries have dealt a blow to its campaign to establish an Islamic "caliphate" across the entire Middle East.
tj/sb (AFP, Reuters, AP)