Iraq Premier: Troops in Center Of Islamic State-Held Tikrit

An Iraqi soldier searches a building for fighters of Islamic State in Tikrit.  (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
An Iraqi soldier searches a building for fighters of Islamic State in Tikrit. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) - Iraqi forces battled Islamic State forces holed up in downtown Tikrit, going house to house Tuesday in search of snipers and booby traps. The prime minister said security forces had reached the city’s center.

In an online statement, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the “liberation of Tikrit” and congratulated Iraqi security forces on their “historic milestone.” But an official statement from his office said the forces “hoisted the Iraqi flag” over the Salahuddin provincial headquarters in Tikrit and are moving to control the entire city.

Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the Salahuddin operation, said his forces fighting from the west were still 325 yards from the center of Tikrit.

Extremists from the Islamic State group seized Saddam Hussein’s hometown last summer during its lightning advance across northern and western Iraq. The battle for Tikrit is seen as a key step toward eventually driving the terrorists out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that is farther north.

Street-by-street fighting raged into the afternoon, and estimates differed widely on how much of this strategic city on the banks of the Tigris River that Iraqi forces held. Army Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati said at least 75 percent of Tikrit had been recaptured. Ammar Hikmat, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said more than 40 percent was under Iraqi control.

Iranian military advisers have been providing significant support since the offensive began March 2, arming and training the Iraqi Shiite militias, which have played a prominent role on the battlefield. Militiamen make up more than two-thirds of the force fighting the Islamic State group in Tikrit.

But the operation stalled until U.S. forces joined the offensive by launching airstrikes on March 25. Since then, Iraqi allied forces have moved in on the city, although they have been slowed by snipers and hidden bombs.

Recapturing Tikrit would be the biggest win so far for Baghdad’s Shiite-led government. The city is 80 miles north of Baghdad and lies on the road connecting the capital to Mosul. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces have a major supply link for any future operation against Mosul.

U.S. military officials have said a coordinated 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.