Iraqi forces pound besieged Tikrit jihadists

AFP , Friday 13 Mar 2015

Shia fighters, known as Hashid Shaabi, fire their weapons during clashes with Islamic State militants in northern Tikrit, March 12, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Iraqi forces on Friday battled militants making what looked increasingly like a last stand in Tikrit but the Islamic State group responded by vowing to expand its "caliphate".

Thousands of fighters surrounded a few hundred holdout IS militants, pounding their positions from the air but treading carefully to avoid the thousands of bombs littering the city centre.

Two days after units spearheading Baghdad's biggest anti-IS operation yet pushed deep into Tikrit, a police colonel claimed around 50 percent of the city was now back in government hands.

"We are surrounding the gunmen in the city centre. We're advancing slowly due to the great number of IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"We estimate there are 10,000 IEDs in the city," he said.

Massively outnumbered, the militants' defence consists of a network of booby traps, roadside bombs and snipers through which suicide attackers occasionally ram car bombs into enemy targets.

"Six soldiers were killed and 11 wounded in a suicide car bomb this morning in Al-Dyum neighbourhood" in western Tikrit, the colonel said. An army major confirmed the death toll.

Tikrit was the hometown of dictator Saddam Hussein, remnants of whose Baath party collaborated with the militants when they took over almost a third of the country last June.

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 Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and bolster Baghdad's defences, then worked its way north, retaking 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, which once had a population of two million.

IS has countered every military loss lately by ramping up its propaganda war with ever more shocking acts, such as getting a child to execute a prisoner on camera or destroying heritage sites.

On Thursday, the group released a recording presented as a speech by spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani which marks the acceptance of a pledge of allegiance by Nigeria's militant group Boko Haram.

"We announce to you the good news of the expansion of the caliphate to West Africa," he said.

Expansion is a pillar of IS doctrine and the group has recently declared new "provinces" in the Middle East and North Africa, albeit sometimes in places where it has a limited footprint.

Adnani shrugged off recent losses in Iraq and Syria, vowing to enter Rome, blow up the White House, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower.

Some analysts have argued that months of battlefield setbacks and air strikes were taking a toll on the militant group and that some of its latest moves concealed growing desperation.

Adnani lashed out at Iran, which he accused of building its own regional empire by meddling in Iraqi affairs and other regional conflicts.

He called Qassem Soleimani, the commander in charge of Tehran's external operations, "the dirty Safavid (a term IS uses in a derogatory way to designate Iranians) leader of the battle."

The once invisible Soleimani, who has been in charge of covert operations for Iran for years, has been ubiquitous on Iraq's frontlines and his myth is growing among Shia fighters.

He appeared in a rare phone video released on Thursday, giving life advice in Arabic, apparently to the sons of a prominent Iraqi militia leader.

The footage was interpreted by critics on social media as further evidence Soleimani was behaving like an all-powerful proconsul.

Pictures of a birthday cake to his effigy were circulating among his supporters on social media, as well as a music video produced by the Iran-backed Harakat al-Nujaba Iraqi militia.

The clip features Iraqi Shia fighters training under Soleimani's reassuring gaze and singing his praise.

Soleimani has been seen with Iraq's top commanders since the start of the Tikrit operation and is thought to be playing a key coordinating role.

"That Soleimani has become acceptable can only be explained by the collapse of the Iraqi army last summer," said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.

The way Iraq's army disintegrated when IS fighters swept in nine months ago has led many Iraqis to give more trust and credit to the paramilitary Shia groups supported by Iran.

"When people feel endangered, they always reach for a saviour," Sowell said.

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