Iraqi offensive targeting IS-held Tikrit on hold

Sinan Salaheddin
Associated Press

Baghdad — An Iraqi offensive to retake the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit will be on hold until civilians in Saddam Hussein’s hometown can flee and roadside bombs can be cleared, the country’s interior minister said Monday.

The comments by Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban offer his public explanation of why the offensive, which began March 2, has halted with soldiers, police officers, Shiite militias and Sunni tribal fighters only in the city’s periphery. The operation is seen a crucial step toward liberating Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, now held along with a third of both Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State group.

Al-Ghabban, speaking to reporters from the nearby city of Samarra, said Islamic State militants booby-trapped roads and buildings leading into Tikrit. That forced Iraqi forces, aided by Iranian advisers, to slow their advance, he said.

“The militants are squeezed into a small part of the city center,” al-Ghabban said.

He offered no timeframe for the advance to resume, saying that is being “left to the field commanders.” So far, the campaign is not being aided by U.S.-led airstrikes, which continue in elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi officials say that at least 30,000 men are fighting to seize Tikrit. U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey said last week that at least 20,000 militiamen are taking part in the offensive.

Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, lies about 80 miles north of Baghdad. It is one of the largest cities held by Islamic State militants and lies on the road connecting Baghdad to Mosul. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces have a major supply link for any future operation to retake Mosul.

U.S. military officials have that said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul likely will begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed.