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Militants fleeing as Iraqi forces enter ISIS-held city of Tikrit, authorities say

Fox News Middle East analyst Walid Phares weighs in

 

Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen have entered Tikrit -- the hometown of Saddam Hussein and one of the largest ISIS-held cities in the country – and have sent militants fleeing, authorities said Wednesday.

Allied Iraqi forces entered the city through its northern Qadisiyya neighborhood, where authorities quickly established a supply line to reinforce troops, Salahuddin police Brig. Kheyon Rasheed told the state-run Iraqiyya television.

"The terrorists are seizing the cars of civilians trying to leave the city and they are trying to make a getaway," Rasheed said. It wasn't immediately clear whether the troops and militiamen faced any resistance.

Video obtained by The Associated Press showed troops and militiamen marching alongside Humvees flying Iraqi military and Shiite miltia flags in the city. Overhead, an attack helicopter fired missiles as soldiers and militiamen laid down heavy machine gunfire in the neighborhood's dusty streets as downtown Tikrit loomed in the distance, black smoke rising overhead.

A local official in Iraq's Salahuddin province also confirmed that Iraqi troops and the militias made it into Qadisiyya. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief journalists.

“We are now doing combat missions to cleanse the neighborhood of Qadisiyah,” a major general told AFP on condition of anonymity, according to Al Arabiya.

The general told AFP that Iraqi forces are now in control of Tikrit military hospital, close to the center of the city.

“But we are engaging in a very delicate battle because we are not facing fighters on the ground, we are facing booby-trapped terrain and sniper fire. Our movement is slow,” the general added.

Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, lies about 80 miles north of Baghdad. It is one of the largest cities held by Islamic State militants and lies on the road connecting Baghdad to Mosul. Retaking it will give Iraqi forces a major supply link to retake Mosul.

Iranian military advisers have been helping guide Iraqi forces. The U.S. says its allied coalition carrying out airstrikes targeting the extremists has not been involved in the Tikrit offensive.

On Tuesday, Iraqi forces reclaimed the town of Alam, located near Tikrit.

The battle for Saddam Hussein's hometown is a key test for the Iraqi forces as they struggle to win back some of the Islamic State group's biggest strongholds in Iraq.

Iraqi forces and supporting militias now control towns to the north and south of Tikrit along the Tigris river valley. If Iraqi forces are able to retake Tikrit, it would add momentum in its campaign to recapture Mosul, the largest city under control by ISIS.

Iranian military advisers have been helping guide Iraqi forces in their advance on Tikrit. Among those directing operations is Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force. The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shiite 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. says its allied coalition carrying out airstrikes targeting the extremists has not been involved in the Tikrit offensive.

The Islamic State holds about a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared caliphate, and launched another attack to expand its territory Wednesday in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi.

Police in Ramadi said at least seven simultaneous suicide car bombers struck the city. Government forces have been regularly fighting off ISIS militants who control neighborhoods in Ramadi’s outskirts.

At least 10 people were killed and 30 were wounded in the attack, police and hospital sources said, according to the AFP.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.