Iraqi government forces and a large contingent of Shi'ite “volunteer” militiamen battled Islamic State militants for a fourth day of bitter fighting aimed at retaking the strategic Tigris River town of Tikrit. The mostly Sunni town lies 80 kilometers north of Baghdad and is a key outpost on the route to Iraq's second largest city, IS-held Mosul.
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Arab media reported both sides continued to dig into their positions, with government forces cutting off supply routes into the city and Islamic State militants setting fire to trenches filled with crude oil, with thick plumes of black smoke obstructing government air strikes.
Several Iraqi sources also reported the militants had set fire to a number of oil wells surrounding Tikrit, but VOA could not independently confirm the reports.
One Iraqi military commander claimed his men had recaptured a number of surrounding villages from Islamic State militants.
He said that his men had made progress along the Awami Dam front, advancing 35 km and “liberating” the villages of Abu Fayad, Abu Shawarab, Abdaliya, and Qoreishi.
A police official told Iraqi state TV that the Islamic State militants had booby trapped one major thoroughfare leading into Tikrit.
He said his forces defused 40 to 50 explosive devices that had been planted on the main road from the adjacent town of Dor, but were able to make progress.
Iraqi-based Asharqiya TV reported a wave of Islamic State car-bomb attackers caused casualties to government forces. Three of the bombers blew themselves up, according the report, while two others were destroyed by air before they could reach their targets. Several top Shi'ite militia commanders were also reportedly killed in fighting Thursday.
Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi said Thursday former Ba'ath Party members who were fighting alongside the Islamic State will have no place in the new Iraq, but that those who were only nominal members of Saddam Hussein's old party are still welcome.
University of Paris political science teacher Khattar Abou Diab said Prime Minister Abadi is sincere, but he is being outflanked by many Shi'ite extremists and their Iranian allies, which is making the battle to win over Sunni hearts and minds more difficult.
He said Tikrit has a symbolic value to Sunni Muslims not only because it is the hometown of Saddam Hussein, but also of the Sunni conqueror (of Jerusalem) Saladin. He argues Iran's participation in the conflict alongside Shi'ite volunteer militiamen is turning many Sunnis against the government and abetting the Islamic State.
Top Shi'ite cleric Ammar Hakim claimed in a televised speech Thursday the current conflict is part of a larger battle for the soul of Islam, being waged against extremists and those who are trying to sully its image. He argues the battle is an open-ended conflict being waged in both Iraq and Syria.