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World

Iraqi Forces Gaining Ground In Tikrit Offensive

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The city of Tikrit is sealed off from all sides. That's the word from an Iraqi general engaged in the fight there against militants from the self-declared Islamic State. A major Iraqi offensive to retake the city has seen success in recent days. Reporter Will Dunlop with Agence France Presse is just back from villages surrounding Tikrit where pro-government forces have recently regained control. And, Will, why don't you describe what you saw there?

WILL DUNLOP: The effects of the fighting vary between villages, but in some areas you could see houses that had been bombed, others that had been lit on fire. Not all of the damage is from the government's side, but also from the Islamic State which burned and blew up houses before withdrawing. The presence of Shia militias was very evident from graffiti that had been sprayed on walls - either religious slogans or references to various militia groups. Smoke stretches along the horizon from an oilfield that has been burning for days. It was allegedly set on fire by the Islamic State to provide cover from airstrikes, and at night, the fire from the field lights up the horizon.

BLOCK: Is anybody left - any civilians left in these villages?

DUNLOP: Not many. In the village of al-Alam some families actually remained throughout the IS occupation of the area. But in other villages, they're all but empty. Major streets are full of shuttered shops that are now covered with militia graffiti, in most cases.

BLOCK: I mentioned the Iraqi general who says there's effectively a cordon now around the city of Tikrit. Is there any way of knowing how much of the city of Tikrit is under the control of the Iraqi government now?

DUNLOP: Pro-government forces have moved in from outlying neighborhoods, especially Qadisiya from the northern side. But the center of the city - well, is still under the control of the Islamic State.

BLOCK: So the fight over this city will go on for some time to come.

DUNLOP: Commanders have told me they're not in a hurry to move in - that they want to avoid casualties even at the expense of some time. However, the Iraqi forces want to also have time to regroup and be able to move on to their next target. And to do that, I think it will be a matter of days as opposed to weeks.

BLOCK: It's been a little hard to sort out, too, who is doing most of the fighting on behalf of the Iraqi government. Is it regular troops, Shiite militias - we also have heard a lot about the involvement of Iran in supporting this offensive? What have you seen?

DUNLOP: It's a combination. On the street - and especially on the eastern bank of the river to the eastern side of Tikrit - militias have the main presence. You can see that they're operating checkpoints. They're - you can see their flags. But the security forces are also taking apart the federal police as well as the Army.

BLOCK: One real question here is once the Iraqi security forces retake control of Tikrit - assuming they do - can they hold onto it?

DUNLOP: That's right. And that's a major source of concern. They've never retaken an area of this size or had to hold an area of this size since this conflict began and can't really afford to leave behind a large force to hold the city that may be needed for operations elsewhere. Local police may play a role, as well as members of tribes from Salah Ah Din Province where Tikrit is located. But exactly what kind of mix they'll arrive at to control the city after it is retaken remains unclear.

BLOCK: Will Dunlop - he spoke with us from Baghdad. Will, thanks very much.

DUNLOP: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Will Dunlop is deputy bureau chief for Agence France Presse in Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.