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Iraqi forces close in on Tikrit

Security forces gain control of an adjacent town, moving a step closer to taking over the Islamic State stronghold

In this Wednesday, March 4, 2015 photo, smoke rises as the Iraqi army, supported by volunteers, battles Islamic State extremists outside Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo credit: AP)
In this Wednesday, March 4, 2015 photo, smoke rises as the Iraqi army, supported by volunteers, battles Islamic State extremists outside Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo credit: AP)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces regained control of a town next to the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit Tuesday, continuing their offensive against the jihadi stronghold, military officials said.

The Iraqi forces entered Alam early in the morning and hours later took full control of the town adjacent to Tikrit, two officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

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.

Ahmed al-Karim, the Salahuddin provincial council chief, told The Associated Press that progress had been slow due to roadside bombs and sniper attacks.

Tikrit, Salahuddin’s provincial capital that lies about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, fell to the Islamic State group last summer, along with Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland.

The offensive to wrest Tikrit from IS has received significant assistance from Iranian military advisers who are guiding Iraq’s Shiite militias on the battlefield. U.S.-led coalition forces have said they are not providing aerial support for this particular mission because the Iraqis have not requested it.

Before Alam, the offensive succeeded in clawing back a few villages and towns, most notably Dawr, south of 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.

U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Join Chiefs of Staff, said while on a visit to the region on Monday that he is “a bit concerned” about whether the international coalition fighting the Islamic State is sustainable for the longer-term challenge of confronting extremists elsewhere.

Dempsey said that in military terms the campaign against IS is “on path.” But he put equal emphasis on the importance of sustaining the coalition for the longer term. Shiite dominance in Baghdad has upset predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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