After expelling ISIS, Iraqi bomb squads begin clearing Tikrit

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After a month of ferocious street battles that finally pushed Islamic State militants out of Tirkrit, a dangerous calm has descended on this city north of Baghdad as Iraqi bomb squads fan out to remove booby traps and explosives left behind by the extremists.

Ahmed Khamis and his team of 12 explosives experts from Iraq's Federal Police have their work cut out for them.

Their labor is slow as they crawl on their hands and knees, street by street, searching painstakingly for any sign of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which have inflicted heavy losses on their comrades and kept them from taking the city for so long.

The government declared victory in Tikrit on Wednesday over extremists of the Islamic State group, and warned IS militants holding other Iraqi provinces that they would be the next to fall.

Most of Tikrit's residents fled when the fighting began. Now, the government has ordered security forces to finish the job by ensuring that Saddam Hussein's hometown is cleared of booby traps before residents start returning.

Their safe return will be of major importance, just as the victory over the extremists in Tikrit is seen as a key step toward eventually driving the militants out of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Mosul lies farther north of Tikrit and also fell to the IS militants last summer.

At one point on Wednesday, Khamis stopped and turned to look at the long road behind him. "The street linking the city center to the Tikrit University has been secured," he said.

"I feel fear every time I approach a package because I think it will kill me, but then I get it open successfully and say `Thank God,"' Khamis told The Associated Press.

Down Tikrit's main street, Khamis' men inched toward a potentially live IED. A few tense moments later, they were able to cut the wires and deactivate it. Once it was removed for study, the team moved on.

It's risky work, Khamis' men acknowledged, but the city needs to be cleared before Tikrit residents can return home.

At least 40 bombs -- iron cylinders ranging in length from 25 to 30 centimeters (about 9 to 10 inches) -- were collected within hours of the battle for Tikrit being declared a victory.

Iraq's Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi said Wednesday that Iraqi forces had "accomplished their mission," seizing back Tikrit from the Islamic State group, which captured the city during a blitz last June that also seized much of northern and western Iraq, along with a swath of land in neighboring Syria.

Khamis is hard of hearing -- a price he says is small for working with explosives. His wife and mother call him daily, begging him to come home, offering to sell their jewelry and precious belongings if it convinces him to quit his job and return home.

"I refused," he said. "This is my work."

Across town, another explosives team, led by 30-year old Ahmed Salah, was also working hard.

Salah said he was trained for three months in de-mining work, which allowed him to join the Federal Police's bomb squad.

"There is a 50 percent chance I will be killed," Salah said, shortly after using a cutter to defuse a roadside bomb.

He said the "most dangerous kind" are bombs detonated by remote control, because they imply IS militants are nearby, waiting for would-be victims.

"Once you get close, Daesh watches you and detonates it," he said using the group's Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Later in the day, the two teams met up near the Tikrit University -- and everyone was accounted for.

It was time for Khamis' and Salah's men to relax and celebrate being alive. They all burst into song and dance, firing celebratory gunshots in the air.

Tomorrow is a new day and there is no telling what it will bring.