Iraqi forces have entered Tikrit, dodging bombs and sniper fire in search of their biggest victory yet against Muslim militants who tried to light new fires elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has suffered stinging defeats in the heart of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” recently, but its ultraviolent ideology has inspired attacks and recruits globally.
With the group’s brutality and displacement of populations reaching new highs, Washington sought increased powers from the US Congress to take on the threat to reshape the Middle East.
However, it was without direct support from the US-led coalition’s air campaign that Iraqi government and allied forces punched into parts of Tikrit on Wednesday, marking a new phase in a 10-day drive to wrest the city back from the Islamic State.
A combination of army, police and volunteer forces moved into northern and southern Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and a main Islamic State group stronghold.
A major general said on condition of anonymity that Iraqi forces were battling “to cleanse the neighborhood of Qadisiyah” in Tikrit.
“[However,] we are engaging in a very delicate battle because we are not facing fighters on the ground, we are facing booby-trapped terrain and sniper fire. Our movement is slow,” he said.
An army colonel said forces coming from another direction had also retaken the main hospital on the city’s southern edge.
Early in the offensive — in which up to 30,000 participants were initially involved, while the extremists are thought to have just a few hundred fighters inside Tikrit — most outlying areas were reconquered.
The town of al-Alam, a flashpoint north of Tikrit along the Tigris River, was under the control of pro-government fighters and local anti-extremist Sunni tribesmen on Wednesday, a reporter there said.
Challenged in eastern and northern Iraq, the extremists tried to seize the initiative elsewhere, including with a spectacular coordinated attack in Ramadi in the west.
Twelve car bombs exploded almost simultaneously around the city after dawn, with at least seven suicide bombers targeting government security installations, officials said.
At least 17 people were killed and 38 wounded, according to a police lieutenant colonel and a doctor at Ramadi hospital.
The bombers reportedly included a Belgian, a Syrian, an Uzbek and a person from the Caucasus, according to extremist accounts monitored by the SITE Intelligence group.
An Australian teenager also reportedly carried out a suicide bombing, which Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday described as “absolutely horrific.”
Clashes ensued, but the militants failed to gain any ground in one of the biggest attacks against a rare pocket of government control in Anbar, a vast, largely desert province bordering Syria.
In and near Baghdad on Wednesday, at least 17 people were killed in five attacks, including nine in a car bomb in the Hurriya neighborhood.
Also on the offensive in Syria, the militants launched a “huge assault” on Wednesday to try to capture a strategic town on the border with Turkey, killing dozens.
Their attack focused on Ras al-Ain and extremists seized a nearby village, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
At least 12 fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which control Ras al-Ain and surrounding villages, were killed, he said.
The militant group has also ramped up its propaganda campaign in what some analysts see as a possible sign of desperation by a movement on its last legs.
After destroying several Iraqi heritage sites that are among the planet’s most precious, the militants again shocked the world on Tuesday by releasing a video in which an Arab Israeli accused of spying for Israel is “executed” by a boy who looks to be no older than 12.
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