Iraqi forces battled Islamic State militants Tuesday holed up in downtown Tikrit as the country's prime minister announced security forces reached the city's center.
In a statement Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said security forces already have retaken neighborhoods on the southern and western edges of the city and are moving to control the entire city. But Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the Salahuddin operation, said his forces fighting in from the west were still 300 meters (325 yards) from the center of Tikrit.
An Associated Press reporter embedded with Iraqi security forces saw soldiers surround the iconic presidential palace in Tikrit on Tuesday, as well as surround the provincial government headquarters there.
Ammar Hikmat, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said more than 40 percent of Tikrit was under the control of Iraqi forces by Tuesday afternoon.
“Our security forces are now pushing forward toward the presidential complex and have already entered parts of it,'' Hikmat said. “I think the whole city will be retaken within the coming 24 hours.''
The large-scale operation to recapture Saddam Hussein's hometown began on March 2. It stalled until U.S. forces joined the offensive by launching airstrikes on March 25.
The leader of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, a collaborative force made up mostly of Shiite militias, also said Tuesday his fighters had rejoined the Tikrit operation, less than a week after announcing a boycott over U.S. involvement.
Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis told the AP that his fighters participated in the southern offensive Tuesday and would be joining the offensive on the northern and western fronts shortly.