Iraq says its forces have closed in on the city of Tikrit in a fierce battle to stop the advance of the "Islamic State" (IS). Baghdad's biggest operation so far against the jihadist group is said to be making progress.
The Iraqi offensive was in its second day on Tuesday as a 30,000 strong force, made up of Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribesmen as well as troops and police, continued the push to retake the city of Tikrit.
The "Islamic State" (IS) have held Tikrit since June 2014 as part of its drive to create a caliphate or the Islamic republic.
The jihadist group has seized large swathes of both Iraq and Syria since last summer.
"They are using urban warfare and snipers, so we are advancing in a cautious and delicate way, and we need more time," a lieutenant general on the ground told AFP.
"We are close to Ad-Dawr, but Daesh (IS) is still in the centre," the senior officer said.
Iraqi forces are reported to be moving on Tikrit in different directions with units targeting the towns of Al-Alam and Ad-Dawr to the north and south. Further troops were also advancing from the east.
Both Iraqi and Iranian state media said Qassem Soleimani - the commander of the Al-Quds Force covert operations unit of Tehran's elite Revolutionary Guards - was also in Iraq's Salaheddin province to help coordinate operations.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the launch of the operation, which is Baghdad's largest offensive against IS to date, on Sunday.
Tikrit is around 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad, and is the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein. The remaining members of his Baath party have collaborated with IS.
The Tikrit offensive is part of an even bigger operation to eventually retake the northern city of Mosul, which is the main IS hub in Iraq.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has expressed its concern over the increasing number of civilians fleeing Tikrit saying around 2.5 million people had already been displaced in Iraq.
The UN also warned Iraq that operations "must be conducted with the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties, and with full respect for fundamental human rights principles and humanitarian law."
lw/jil (AFP, AP)