, ALBU AJIL, Iraq, Mar 13 – Thousands of Iraqi forces laid siege to jihadists holed up in Tikrit Thursday but the Islamic State group shrugged off setbacks by welcoming Nigeria’s Boko Haram group into its “caliphate”.
After making major gains in and around the city Wednesday, commanders were confident that Baghdad’s biggest victory yet against IS was only a matter of time.
“Now we are moving to the second phase of our plan,” Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi told reporters in Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital.
“We are very keen for our losses to be as low as possible. Time is on our side, we have the initiative,” he said on the 11th day of the offensive.
No one involved has provided casualty figures since the start of this latest and largest operation to retake Tikrit, which has been in IS hands since June.
But dozens of bodies are being driven south to Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Najaf almost every day and, while government forces have had the upper hand, IS has done damage with suicide car bombs, booby traps and snipers.
“We don’t want to be rushed because we want to avoid casualties,” police Staff Major General Bahaa al-Azzawi told AFP in Albu Ajil, a village from which Tikrit can be seen across the Tigris River.
“Tikrit is sealed off from all sides,” he said.
All towns and villages on the river’s eastern bank were under the control of anti-IS forces Thursday.
Black and white IS flags on walls had been painted over with slogans cursing the jihadist group or praising Shiite militia groups.
Tikrit is on the west bank and, until sappers throw floating bridges across the river, the nearest bridge is in Samarra, nearly 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the south.
– Sunni tribes fighting –
Tikrit was the hometown of dictator Saddam Hussein, remnants of whose Baath party collaborated with the jihadists when they took over almost a third of the country last June.
With crucial military backing from neighbouring Iran and a 60-nation US-led coalition, Baghdad has rolled back some of the losses.
It started with operations to secure the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and bolster Baghdad’s defences, then worked its way north, retaking Diyala province earlier this year.