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Tikrit 'Almost Liberated,' As More Areas Fall Under Iraqi Control

Shi'ite paramilitary fighters hold an Islamic State flag that they pulled down in Tikrit on March 31.

Shi'ite paramilitary fighters hold an Islamic State flag that they pulled down in Tikrit on March 31.

Though Iraq's state television network Iraqiya announced on March 31 that "Tikrit has fallen to us," the battle to oust the Islamic State (IS) militant group from the strategic Iraqi city is not quite over, according to reports on April 1.

Jubilant reports that IS gunmen had been completely pushed out of Tikrit spread after Iraq's Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said on March 31 that his forces had reached the center of the city and raised the Iraqi flag there.

The U.S.-led coalition against IS was more cautious, saying in a statement on March 31 that parts of Tikrit still remained under IS control.

"There is still work to be done," spokesperson Major Kim Michelsen told the AFP news agency by e-mail.

Late on March 31, a spokesman for Abadi appeared to backtrack somewhat on the "Tikrit has fallen" message, announcing that Iraqi forces had been able to clear the west and east of Tikrit and were "expecting to liberate Tikrit entirely within the next hours."

Iraq's Interior Minister Muhammad al-Ghabban gave a similar report on the morning of April 1, saying that "most of Tikrit is liberated today."

"Only a few areas of resistance are remaining," Ghabban added.

One of those "areas of resistance" is the northern neighborhood of Qadissiyah, where Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militias are battling IS gunmen.

Though fighting is ongoing at least in the north of Tikrit, Iraqi news outlets reported on April 1 that Abadi had traveled to the city, while Tikrit Governor Raed al-Jubouri formally opened the governorate building and "raised the Iraqi flag above it."

Claimed images of the governor of Tikrit returning to the city were shared on social media.

The UN's special representative for Iraq, Jan Kubis, issued a press statement on April 1, saying that the liberation of Tikrit was a "victory for all the Iraqi people." Kubis also called on the Iraqi government to ensure that Tikrit residents who fled from IS can return to their homes and that humanitarian assistance be provided to them.

The Iraqi gains in Tikrit represent the first major victory by Iraqi forces against IS since the militant group began to overrun vast swaths of land in Iraq last summer.

Iraqi troops, police, and Popular Mobilization Units -- mostly Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias -- cooperated to push IS out of Tikrit.

The cooperation between the various participants in the offensive has not been without difficulty, however, and has strained the already tense and complex relationship between the United States and Iran in the fight against IS.

When the Tikrit offensive began on March 2, the U.S.-led coalition initially held back on conducting air strikes against IS in Tikrit, with the United States saying that it would assist in the fight only if the more than 20,000 Shi'ite militias -- many of whom are hostile to the United States -- left the battlefield.

When the coalition began air strikes on March 26, the Shi'ite militiamen stalled their offensive against IS. One militia group, Kitaeb Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, even threatened to shoot down coalition airplanes in the area.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said on March 27 that the militiamen who stopped fighting in objection to the U.S.-led air strikes had been "primarily the [Shi'ite] militia units that we had no interest in being on the battlefield in the first place. These are the [Shi'ite] militia that are clearly linked or often infiltrated by Iran."

The Iranian involvement in Iraq, including the Tikrit offensive, has angered some Iraqi leaders, too, with Iraq's Vice President Iyad Allawi saying on March 23 that Tehran's involvement in his country was "unacceptable."

Iran was "sending officers to fight and lead and declaring that Baghdad is becoming the capital of the Persian empire," Allawi told Sky News.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena