Iraqi forces have retaken a town near the city of Tikrit, a possible step toward seizing back the Islamist militant stronghold. Shiite militia have been accused of burning homes in the predominantly Sunni region.
Iraqi troops aided by Shiite militia known as Hashid Shaabi were reported to have wrested back control of the town of Alam from "Islamic State" (IS) militant fighters.
Alam's mayor, Laith al-Jubouri, told the Reuters news agency by telephone that IS had been driven out of town by the advancing forces.
"I am speaking now from al-Alam and I announce officially that the town is under the total control of security forces, the Hashid Shaabi units and local tribal fighters," al-Jubouri said.
"We rejoice in this victory and we want al-Alam to be the launchpad for the liberation of Tikrit and Mosul," he said.
Former dictator's power base
As well as strategic value, Tikrit also has major symbolic significance.
The hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, the city houses remnants of Hussein's Baath party, which is accused of collaborating with IS. Militants holding on to Tikrit have been outnumbered and outgunned by the pro-government force, and have adopted guerilla tactics - including roadside bombs and sniper attacks - to halt the government advance.
Residents near Mosul on Tuesday said an airstrike by the US-led coalition against IS had destroyed a militant column heading south toward Tikrit. If confirmed, the airstrike would be the first action by the coalition linked with the push to retake the city.
Fears of sectarian vengance
Among those in control of the government push is an Iranian general, Ghasem Soleimani, who is commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force. Shiite Iran's role and the prominence of Shiite militias has given rise to fears of possible sectarian cleansing should Tikrit - which is overwhelmingly Sunni - fall to the government troops.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War claims that local residents are suspected of involvement in the apparent mass execution of some 1,200 Shiite recruits captured last year by IS - the so-called Camp Speicher massacre.
Some houses were burnt during the taking of Alam, although it was unclear whether they had been set alight by the Shiite militia or retreating IS fighters. The operation to retake Tikrit was said by the UN to have displaced thousands of people in its early stages.
rc/jr (AP, dpa, Reuters)