ISIS snipers, car bombs slowing advance of Iraqi troops in Tikrit
Iraqi commanders expect city to fall in coming days, but ISIS still holds central districts
Rockets and mortars echoed across Tikrit on Thursday as Iraqi security forces clashed with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants a day after sweeping into the Sunni city north of Baghdad.
Recapturing Tikrit is seen as a key step toward rolling back the extremist group, which seized much of northern and western Iraq last summer and controls about a third of Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi troops and allied Shia militiamen entered Tikrit for the first time Wednesday from the north and south. The head of the military operation told The Associated Press on Thursday that troops would launch phase two of the offensive later in the day as they try to reach the city centre.
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The militants were trying to repel security forces with snipers, suicide car bombs, heavy machine guns and mortars, he said, speaking anonymously as he was not authorized to brief the media.
In an interview with The Associated Press on the front line, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said he expected security forces to reach the centre of Tikrit within three to four days.
Eyes on Mosul
The operation to retake Tikrit is "essential to opening a corridor for security forces to move from the south to Mosul," he said, referring to Iraq's second-largest city and the militants' biggest stronghold.
He described the operation as "100 per cent Iraqi, from the air and ground."
Military officials said they are advancing with caution in an effort to limit damage to the city's infrastructure, so that residents can return quickly once Tikrit is retaken.
The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shia militias in the campaign have raised fears of possible sectarian cleansing should Tikrit, an overwhelmingly Sunni city, fall to the government troops.
The U.S. has said its allied coalition carrying out airstrikes targeting the extremists has not been involved in the ongoing Tikrit offensive. Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has appealed for more aid for his country's beleaguered ground forces, though the U.S. spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq's army during its eight-year occupation.