Tikrit: Iraqi forces today picked through the rubble-strewn streets of Tikrit after storming to the city centre, searching for diehard jihadist fighters and avoiding the booby traps they left behind. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed the city was liberated but the US-led coalition that has been helping Baghdad from the air said there was “still work to be done”.
Celebrations began when the black jihadist flag was replaced by Iraq’s tricolour on the main provincial headquarters in central Tikrit yesterday following a big military push. Yet the fate of hundreds of IS fighters thought to have been holed up in former president Saddam Hussein’s hometown for a bloody last stand was unclear today.
Abadi initially said Tikrit’s centre, south and west had been retaken and moments later announced the city’s full liberation on social media, hailing it as a “historic milestone”. A spokesperson for the 60-nation US-led coalition that has carried out air strikes against IS in Tikrit and across Iraq suggested it was premature to claim victory in the month-old battle.
“Parts of the city remain under (IS) control and there is still work to be done,” Major Kim Michelsen said by email. US President Barack Obama’s deputy envoy for the coalition, Brett McGurk, said Iraqi forces had made “encouraging progress” in Tikrit. A top leader in the Badr organisation, one of the most prominent Shiite militias in Iraq, admitted that IS had not been completely purged of jihadist fighters.
“Snipers are still there and many buildings are booby-trapped,” Karim al-Nuri told AFP in the northern Tikrit neighbourhood of Qadisiya. In scenes captured in an AFP video yesterday, jubilant fighters could be seen tearing up the black flag amid extensive destruction in the city. “We are in the centre of Tikrit. The city and all administrative buildings were completely liberated,” said one of them, policeman Bahaa Abdullah Nasif.
There was no immediate information on how many fighters were killed, wounded or captured in the fighting. The government has not provided any casualty figures since the operation started on March 2.