An overnight attack by ISIS militants in the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit killed at least 31 people, including 14 police officers, and wounded at least 42, Iraqi army and police said on Wednesday.
A police lieutenant colonel said the attack began when three militants opened fire in central Tikrit on Tuesday night. They later blew themselves up inside homes in the area.
The attackers were disguised in police uniforms and used a police vehicle to enter the city, 175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad, Police Colonel Khalid Mahmoud told Reuters. He said there were around 10 attackers, including two suicide bombers.
ISIS’ Amaq news agency said seven suicide fighters attacked a police position and the home of the head of the city’s counter-terrorism service, who was killed. The assailants blew themselves up when they ran out of ammunition, it said.
A total of 31 bodies were taken to hospital, including 14 policemen, said Nawfal Mustafa, a doctor at the city’s main hospital. The death toll rose during the morning as the bodies of civilians killed in their shops were found.
The attacks targeted a police checkpoint and the house of a police colonel, who was killed with four members of his family, officers said.
Two suicide attackers detonated their vests when surrounded by police, and three others were killed in separate clashes.
Five militants are thought to be hiding and Mahmoud said Tikrit authorities had declared a curfew on Wednesday. Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the morning.
ISIS seized Tikrit during a lightning offensive that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in the summer of 2014, but Iraqi forces recaptured it the following year.
Meanwhile, a US-backed offensive is underway to dislodge ISIS from the remaining districts under its control in Mosul, 225 km away, the country’s last city in which the jihadists hold significant ground.
Iraq’s military on Wednesday called on residents to shelter in their homes in jihadist-held areas of Mosul.
The government has urged residents not to flee during the fighting — a policy aimed at easing the burden of widespread displacement but which can heighten the risk of injury or death for civilians.
“Iraqi air force aircraft dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets… containing procedures and recommendations for citizens” in west Mosul and other ISIS-held areas, said Iraq’s Joint Operations Command.
These included “remaining inside houses and staying away from known (ISIS) sites such as headquarters, checkpoints, artillery positions and barracks, because they will be targets for our aircraft.
“Aerial bombing will target (ISIS) gangs and not civilians,” it said in a statement.
Yet, residents, whether targeted directly or not, still can and have been the victims of strikes aimed at ISIS fighters who are deployed in areas still populated by hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The US-led coalition carrying out strikes against ISIS — which has admitted that it “probably” played a role in recent civilian casualties in Mosul — has said that the militants are surreptitiously forcing civilians into homes and then seeking to encourage air strikes on them.
ISIS has repeatedly targeted civilians with snipers, bombs and shelling in and around Mosul, and seized them for use as human shields.
The United Nations has said more than 300 civilians have been killed in the fighting during the west Mosul offensive, which began in February.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on Iraqi and US-led coalition forces “to undertake an urgent review of tactics to ensure that the impact on civilians is reduced to an absolute minimum.”
Amnesty International said field research in east Mosul — which was recaptured from ISIS in January — showed “an alarming pattern of US-led coalition air strikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside”.
“The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces… have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” said Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera.