Iraqi forces, Shiite militias in final push to retake Tikrit
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Iraqi security forces and mainly Shiite militias are besieging Islamic State jihadists in Tikrit Friday after making major gains around the city in their largest offensive yet against the militants.
Iraqi commanders are confident that Baghdad's biggest victory yet against the militants is only a matter of time.
"Now we are moving to the second phase of our plan," Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi told reporters in Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital.
A military source told Reuters that the insurgents still held the presidential complex and at least three other districts in the centre of Tikrit, holding up further army advances with snipers and bombs. Security officials also said Islamic State fighters had booby-trapped abandoned buildings.
"We don't want to be rushed because we want to avoid casualties," police Staff Major General Bahaa al-Azzawi told AFP in Albu Ajil, a village from which Tikrit can be seen across the Tigris River.
"Tikrit is sealed off from all sides," he said.
All towns and villages on the river's eastern bank were under the control of the forces battling the jihadists on Thursday. Black and white Islamic State flags had been painted over with slogans cursing the jihadist group or praising Shiite militias.
Tikrit is on the west bank and the nearest bridge is in Samarra, nearly 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the south.
Tikrit was the hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, remnants of whose Baath party collaborated with the jihadists when they took over almost a third of the country in a rapid offensive last June.
But with crucial military backing from neighbouring Iran and a 60-nation US-led coalition, Baghdad has rolled back some of the losses. It started with operations to secure the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and bolster Baghdad's defences, then worked its way north to retake Diyala province earlier this year.
Commanders see the recapture of overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Tikrit as a stepping stone for the reconquest of second city Mosul further north, now an Islamic State stronghold and which once had a population of two million.
Analysts say the battle for Tikrit is also a key test of how well the regular army can work with the myriad militia groups and prevent reprisals against Sunnis.
The defence minister, a Sunni, said he was impressed with the level of cooperation and played down concerns that victory in Tikrit could further alienate the minority community.
"What caught my attention and was very positive, was that I met a number of fighters, maybe more than 250, who are all sons of Tikrit," he said.
"It sends a very positive message to the Iraqi people and lifts the spirit of the security forces."
US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to discuss the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of an investment conference in Sharm el-Sheikh later on Friday.
Boko Haram joins Islamic State group
Despite its recent losses on the battlefield, the Islamic State group has ramped up its propaganda war, accepting the allegiance of Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram on Thursday. The group released an audio recording from the group's spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, in which he formally welcomes Boko Haram into the fold.
"We announce to you to the good news of the expansion of the caliphate to West Africa," Adnani said.
Earlier this week the Islamic State group released a video of child fighters executing prisoners.
Adnani insisted the group was "sure of its victory" regardless of the challenges.
"God is on our side and give us the strength to combat this armada of Crusader countries," he said.
The group also released a video in which eight men from the region along the Euphrates River straddling Iraq and Syria were beheaded.
The video gives their names and accuses them of spying for a Syria-based rebel group opposed to the Islamic State, of supplying intelligence to Iraqi forces and of torturing an member of the group.
In Syria, where the Islamic State has also seized vast areas of territory, more than 50 regime soldiers and jihadists were killed in heavy fighting in Latakia, President Bashar al-Assad's home province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)