The Iraqi army on Saturday drove Islamic extremists from the centre of a major city in central Iraq, for the first time mounting a concerted assault against insurgents who had charged to within 50 miles of Baghdad.
Independent sources, including local officials and witnesses, confirmed that an Iraqi army counter-offensive had driven militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant from the centre of Tikrit, including from government buildings as well as major roads and other positions throughout the city.
But fighting was still continuing, with Iraqi war planes bombing targets inside the city late in the afternoon.
Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, with a largely Sunni population of 250,000, is in the Tigris River Valley, 100 miles north of Baghdad. It has long been a stronghold of anti-government Sunnis in Iraq, and losing it would sever the insurgents’ lines of communication to Mosul and Syria. It could also strand some of their fighters in pockets south of Tikrit.
A spokesman for the Iraqi military, Gen Qassim Atta, claimed that ISIL militants were withdrawing and that they had buried their dead on the grounds of a former Hussein palace in Tikrit. “Reports and surveillance show that ISIL leaders have ordered a retreat,” he said.
General Atta also said the government forces had killed Abu Abdul Hadi Baqiya, the ISIL commander for northern Tikrit.
Reports from medical officials at the provincial hospital in Tikrit said ISIL began evacuating its wounded from the site on Friday.
ISIL, however, claimed a victory over government forces at the southern gates of the city, in postings on Twitter accounts associated with the extremists.
In other clashes, like the battle for control of the important Baiji refinery in Salahuddin Province, both sides have sometimes traded control of contested territory on an almost daily basis.
The Iraqi army’s counter-offensive began Thursday with an airborne assault on the campus of Salahuddin University, which drove the militants out of that site. Early Saturday morning, after two days of fighting around the university, in downtown Tikrit, the Iraqi army launched a three-pronged attack, with a large body of ground troops driving into the city from the south and east, joined by troops garrisoned in Camp Speicher, north of the city, an Iraqi Air Force training base that never fell to the insurgents.
There were also numerous reports of violence elsewhere in the country on Saturday.