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World

Iraqi Army Faces Critical Test In Battle Over Tikrit

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

After a string of successes taking territory in Iraq, the self-proclaimed Islamic State is facing what's looking like its first significant defeat. Iraq's prime minister says Iraqi forces are on the verge of pushing ISIS out of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown north of Baghdad. The Islamic State has occupied Tikrit since last spring. And this morning, the U.S. Central Command said Iraqi forces with coalition air support defeated an attack by ISIS in another city, Ramadi, to the west of Baghdad. Let's go to Baghdad now and to The New York Times correspondent, Anne Barnard. Welcome to the program.

ANNE BARNARD: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: From your vantage point there in Baghdad, what do you know about what's happening on the ground in Tikrit?

BARNARD: Well, we were in Tikrit last week. And what we understand is that there's some difficult fighting in the center of Tikrit, especially around Saddam Hussein's enormous palace complex in the city, because the Islamic State has filled place with booby-trapped houses and roadside bombs. And there are snipers in the area. That said, they have been rolled back out of the villages around Tikrit and much of the city. And the Iraqi forces are confident that they are eventually going to take the city.

MONTAGNE: Well, Iraq's uniform military folded - this got a lot of press last year - when it faced ISIS on the battlefield in the first place. What are the mix of forces now, there in Tikrit, trying to reclaim the city?

BARNARD: Well, this is the largest offensive against the Islamic State militants that the Iraqi government has mounted. And it's 30,000 strong, 20,000 or more of which are from the mostly Shiite militias known as popular mobilization forces. There's also Iraqi army and police involved and some Sunni tribal fighters from the area.

MONTAGNE: So Sunni forces, in fact, local forces, are joining in?

BARNARD: Yes, we hear different numbers. U.S. officials say there's about a thousand involved. You know, the question is whether they can get a broadly Iraqi force to fight ISIS. And it's complicated given the history of sectarian tensions in the country. That said, yesterday, a group of Sunni fighters joined the popular mobilization forces in Basra, in the south. So it may be that if Tikrit goes well, they'll be able to recruit more of those forces.

MONTAGNE: Well, when ISIS, which is Sunni, captured Tikrit months ago, there were reports that they massacred Iraqi soldiers who were Shiite. Now that Iraqi Shiite militias are on the verge of recapturing Tikrit, what is the risk that they will take some sort of revenge?

BARNARD: Well, Tikrit has a particularly strong emotional valence because more than 1,000 Shiite soldiers were massacred there by ISIS. So there are fears of that. But on the other hand, this has been something talked about by Shiite clerics, by government officials, by militia leaders. They know that they are under the microscope for this. You know, Iraq's leading cleric and other senior Shiite figures have called on the forces to avoid revenge and to take care of the Sunni residents who have been displaced from their homes and have been suffering under ISIS.

MONTAGNE: Anne, thank you very much.

BARNARD: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Anne Barnard of The New York Times, speaking to us from Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.