Iraqi forces moved into parts of downtown Tikrit on Tuesday, which means the city’s recapture from the self-proclaimed Islamic State could be “imminent,” U.S. defense officials told the Daily Beast.
But those wins were short of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi claims in Baghdad that the city had been “liberated.” Rather, U.S. officials believe the Iraqi forces have made major gains that could lead to the campaign turning against ISIS. The advances comes less than a week after U.S.-led coalition strikes began in Tikrit.
“We can confirm ISF’s [Iraqi Security Forces] advancement into Tikrit to liberate the city center as well as other parts of the city from ISIL,” said Army Major Curt Kellogg, a military spokesman, using the government’s preferred acronym for the terror group. “The coalition will continue to provide support to the ISF as they continue to operate in the area.”
On Tuesday, Abadi announced the supposed victory on Twitter.
At a Cabinet meeting earlier, Abadi called the operation a success.
“The success of the Tikrit experiment will be repeated in other areas because of the results it has achieved on the battlefield, on a humanitarian level, protecting civilians as much as possible, in addition to the low casualties amongst our security forces,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
Up until Tuesday, ISIS controlled the 20 square miles between Tikrit University and the city of Ouja in the southern outskirts of Tikrit. Downtown and government buildings remained firmly under ISIS control.
Army General Lloyd Austin, the head of the U.S. Central Command, estimated there are roughly 4,000 Iraqi security forces conducting the Tikrit operation. A U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that there could be as many 10,000 additional militiamen joining the fight, nominally, at least, under the command and control of the Iraqi Security forces.
There are up against roughly 400 ISIS fighters, defense officials said. Such overwhelming numbers in favor of Iraqi forces suggests that once the Iraqi forces gain some traction inside the city, the momentum could shift their way quickly.
“Our indications are they now are doing clearing operations,” one defense official explained to The Daily Beast. “We can’t say how long it will take but getting to downtown could shift the momentum.”
There are thousands of other militiamen who refused to go under the U.S. military’s command. They either pulled back to areas east of the city, a rural community that has become a makeshift holding area, or left all together. Should the city fall, these militiamen may reemerge in the city, in part, to claim credit for its fall.
This is not the first time Iraqi officials claimed that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown was about to fall. Just three weeks ago—when Iranian advisers, weapons, and troops from its elite Quds force were helping lead the Tikrit campaign—Abadi suggested the fall was imminent. During an interview with ABC’s This Week at that time, Abadi said the operation was ahead of schedule.
But days later, the campaign stalled as Iraqi and militia forces sustained unexpectedly high casualties as the confronted a city booby trapped with explosives. About a week and a half after that, General Qassem Suleimani, leader of the Quds force, left the city, and the U.S. began providing intelligence from drone surveillance. On March 25, the U.S.-led coalition began conducting airstrikes in Tikrit, on the condition that all ground forces were under Iraqi military command, not Iranian advisers or militia leaders.
The Tikrit operation began early March. Should the city fall of out ISIS hands, it would mark the biggest loss for the terror group as it has been entrenched in the city for months. And the city, which was once home to 250,000 people, is the last remaining city under ISIS control in Iraq’s Saladin province.