Iraqi forces have retaken the Salaheddin provincial government headquarters in Tikrit from the Islamic State jihadist group, a significant advance in the battle to recapture the city, officials said Tuesday.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said security forces and Popular Mobilisation units — pro-government paramilitary forces dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias — took part in the fighting, after some of those groups said they froze offensive operations in response to US-led air strikes.
“Iraqi forces cleared the government complex in Tikrit,” an army major general said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The government buildings have been under our control since last night (Monday).”
It is the most significant advance in Tikrit since pro-government forces launched an operation to retake the city on March 2, their largest since IS led an offensive that overran much of the country’s Sunni Arab heartland last June.
Salaheddin Governor Raad al-Juburi confirmed that the government headquarters had been retaken, saying that Iraqi flags now flew over various recaptured buildings in the city.
Badr spokesman Karim al-Nuri also said that the government headquarters was recaptured.
“Our security forces arrived at the centre of the city of Tikrit and freed the southern and western sides, and are moving to take control of the entire city,” Abadi said in a statement.
Soldiers, policemen, Popular Mobilisation fighters, tribesmen and Tikrit residents were taking part in the fighting, while the US-led coalition and Iraqi forces provided air support.
Key Shiite militia forces in the Popular Mobilisation said they were halting Tikrit operations when the coalition began air strikes in the area after weeks during which Iran was the main foreign partner in the operation.
– Suicide bombing –
The US-led strikes started last Wednesday, angering Shiite militiamen who accused Washington of attempting to hijack their victory.
The Pentagon conditioned its intervention on an enhanced role for regular government forces.
Last Friday, it hailed the withdrawal from the fight of “those Shiite militias who are linked to, infiltrated by, (or) otherwise under the influence of Iran”.
But after giving themselves political cover by declaring that they do not want to work with each other, both sides are still taking part in the Tikrit operation.
The main militias in the Popular Mobilisation forces have played a key role in successful operations against IS in multiple areas north of Baghdad.
They have also been accused of abuses including summary executions and destruction of property.
During a visit to Baghdad on Monday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said that Iraq must “bring volunteer armed groups fighting in support of the government under government control”.
“Civilians freed from the brutality of Daesh should not have to then fear their liberators,” Ban said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Security in and around Baghdad has improved markedly during the battle against IS, in large part because the jihadists have been occupied with fighting elsewhere.
But attacks still occur, such as a suicide bombing on Tuesday in the Taji area, north of the capital, that killed at least eight people and wounded at least 14, security and medical officials said.