The operation to retake Tikrit from jihadists is in its last stages. Iraqi forces have begun making a rapid advance on the city following airstrikes by the US-led coalition.
In a bid to regain the northern city of Tikrit, Iraqi forces were making a final push on Thursday in the battle against "Islamic State" ("IS") militants.
Jihadists had seized the city as part of a move to capture large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria to create a caliphate or Islamic state.
The operation was launched on March 2, but had failed to oust the remaining IS fighters, who barricaded themselves inside the city center with thousands of bombs.
"The assault on the last (IS-held) pocket of Tikrit started from the southern front, in Awja," said a brigadier general from the military headquarters in Salaheddin province.
He also said Iraqi forces were attacking from the west and north, and were repairing a bridge over the Tigris river.
Jihadists had blown up the bridge to delay the eastern advance of Iraqi forces on Tikrit.
Forces involved in the battle against IS included the volunteer Popular Mobilization units, Shiite militia groups, the Iraqi army's counter-terrorism force as well as Interior Ministry units.
The battle for Tikrit
"Now the operation to take Tikrit really begins," a US defense official told AFP news agency.
A spokesman in Paris also announced that the French air force took part in the coalition raids, which began late Wednesday.
Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said Iraqi Sukhoi fighter jets pounded Tikrit on Thursday off the back of the coalition-led airstrikes.
Washington had expressed strong reservations over the leading role played in the Tikrit operation by Shiite militia groups, some of which have been accused of serious abuses.
However, the Pentagon insisted Washington remained a valuable partner for Baghdad in the war against IS.
"Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that very clearly and very squarely reside with the coalition," spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said Wednesday.
The exact number of civilians trapped inside Tikrit is unclear, but the Red Crescent aid agency recently put the estimate at "no more than 30,000, probably quite a bit less."
lw/kms (AFP, AP)