Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The countdown to the liberation of Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is already under way, the Iraqi military official who heads the operation told Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday, though he did not specify a particular date for the start of the mission.
Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab Al-Saadi, the head of military operations for the Salah Al-Din governorate, whose provincial capital is Tikrit, said Iraqi army forces supported by Shi’ite volunteer militias were now on their way to completely wresting control of the city from ISIS, now that government forces had liberated the nearby town of Baiji and surrounding areas.
The Iraqi army declared it had finally recaptured Baiji, which lies only 27 miles (43 kilometers) north of Tikrit, in December, following months-long battles with ISIS for control of the area
A source from the Salah Al-Din operations command said on Saturday that 11 fighters from ISIS had been killed in Baiji as Iraqi forces and volunteer militias rolled in to secure the town on Friday. Forty-five explosives devices set by the group in the town had also been diffused by Iraqi forces, the source said.
Saadi said it was now essential for the army to cut off all supply routes to the town in order to help flush out any remaining ISIS fighters in the region, and stop it from moving reinforcements into the area.
After the Baiji area has been fully secured, “and after we have prepared all necessary logistical requirements,” the mission to liberate Tikrit will be fully under way, Saadi said, though he declined to say when the campaign would begin.
Iraqi forces began to make ground in the area in November when they retook the nearby Baiji oil refinery, the country’s largest, from ISIS, which seized it during June.
The capture of the refinery came around the same time as the group’s lightening advance across northern and western portions of Iraq, when it captured Tikrit and Iraqi’s second city Mosul in a matter of days.
Since then, Shi’ite volunteer militia forces have been fighting alongside the Iraqi army as it has attempted to take back the parts of the country captured by ISIS, bolstered also by international coalition airstrikes against the group.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Yazan Al-Jabouri, a senior member of a pro-government militia, said the “first page” of the Tikrit offensive had been turned now that all routes into and out of the area had been secured and cut off from ISIS, adding that volunteer militias were playing a central role in this phase of the campaign.
The “second page” of the offensive will come “within a month,” he said, and will comprise the “complete liberation” of the city.
Following that, the operation to liberate Mosul, also taken by ISIS last June, could fully begin. Freeing that city can only start once Tikrit and its environs and surrounding routes are secure, Jabouri said, as this would leave Iraqi government forces heading north to Mosul from Tikrit exposed to attacks by ISIS.