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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Monday, May 21, 2018

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Iraqi army enter Tikrit in key offensive to push out Islamic State

Iraqi forces swept into Tikrit

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BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON - Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militia forces entered Tikrit on Wednesday, pushing the Islamic State extremists out of the key Sunni city north of Baghdad.

Iraqi forces swept into Tikrit, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, through the northern neighborhood of Qadisiyya amid signs that the Islamic State militants were fleeing and leaving behind roadside bombs.

"We have defused hundreds of IEDs," said Colonel Mohammad Ibrahim, an Iraqi federal police spokesman in Samarra, a city around 20 miles south of Tikrit. "We have accomplished sealing off Tikrit and the towns around it."

Explosions and heavy gunfire echoed through Tikrit as the Iraqi forces moved into the streets to expel the militants from the strategic gateway city.

The offensive for Tikrit will serve as a major boost for the Iraqi forces, which had collapsed last year under the offensive of the IS and lost the city. The forces are now locked in street-by-street fighting to retake the city, one of the Islamic State group's biggest strongholds.

Officials established a supply line through the neighborhood to reinforce troops, Salahuddin police Brig. Kheyon Rasheed told the state-run Iraqiyya television.

An official in Salahuddin province said that Iraqi troops entered Qadisiyya and raised the Iraqi flag over Tikrit's general hospital. Later in the day, the Iraqi army and the militia also entered the key city from the south to squeeze out the fleeing militants. The advance was codenamed "At your service, prophet of Allah."

"The terrorists are seizing the cars of civilians trying to leave the city and they are trying to make a getaway," Rasheed said.

Retaking Tikrit would open a supply line to besiege Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city that is under Islamic State control. U.S. military officials have said that a mission to retake Mosul could begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops.

Top US general Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said "there is no doubt" Iraqi forces will drive Islamic State (IS) militants out of Tikrit.

However, he also observed that Iranian military advisers have been helping guide Iraqi forces in their advance on Tikrit.

Speaking Wednesday on Capitol Hill, U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey described the militias as "Iranian trained and somewhat Iranian equipped."

He said top U.S. military officials are watching the operation closely to see if Iranian-backed Shiite militias carry out acts of retribution against Sunnis remaining in the city. Such a move would heighten sectarian conflict and undermine American efforts to support Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.

Dempsey made the comments Wednesday while testifying at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on a proposal to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State.

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