Salah Al-Din and Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi lifted the Iraqi flag over the Salah Al-Din governorate building in the provincial capital Tikrit on Wednesday, declaring a victory for Iraqi forces over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seized the city last June.
“The enemy [ISIS] has been removed and has lost all its abilities and morale,” Interior Minister Mohamed Al-Ghabban said on Wednesday, adding that “most of Tikrit’s civilian areas have been liberated from ISIS elements, and there only remain but a few of them” in the city.
Iraqi forces would be spreading out throughout the city on Thursday to secure any remaining pockets of ISIS resistance and pave the way for the return of its civilian population after clearing landmines and any other remaining explosive devices.
The head of Iraq’s federal police force, Chief Marshall Shaker Jawdat, told Asharq Al-Awsat 150 fighters from the extremist group had been killed during the month-long military operation to liberate the city.
Iraqi forces had also succeeded in removing over 500 explosive devices placed throughout the city as well as seizing 13 “factories” used for making such devices, he added.
A statement from Abadi’s office said the prime minister had handed back security jurisdiction of the city to its chief of police and that full security would be restored within the coming days.
A triumphant Abadi toured the streets of Tikrit on Wednesday surrounded by military officials and greeted the Iraqi soldiers and volunteer forces who had helped liberate the city from ISIS.
Ra’ed Al-Jabouri, the governor of Salah Al-Din province, officially reopened the governorate building after Abadi placed the Iraqi flag on its roof.
Jabouri told Asharq Al-Awsat work would now begin on repairing damaged government buildings and facilities as well as homes and other infrastructure damaged during ISIS’s occupation and the subsequent battle to reclaim the city for Iraqi forces.
The liberation of Tikrit comes as a significant morale-booster for Iraq’s government and military, who were left shell-shocked after ISIS’s rapid advance across Iraq helped the extremist group claim almost a third of the country’s territory, including Tikrit and Iraq’s second city Mosul.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, former Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf said the liberation of Tikrit represented a “paradigm shift” in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
“This counts as a major symbolic victory against the Dawa’esh, which gave this battle a different taste completely,” he said, using an Arabic term to denote ISIS fighters.
The Iraqi military, aided by Shi’ite volunteer forces, made significant gains during the first two weeks of the Tikrit offensive, which was launched on March 2.
But the operation then appeared to stall as ISIS mounted a strong counter-offensive. However, aided by airstrikes from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition—which initially did not take part in the Tikrit operation—Iraqi forces were able to retake the city.
The battle for Tikrit has been billed as a dress rehearsal for a larger operation to liberate Mosul and drive out ISIS from remaining areas in Iraq which it currently controls. Tikrit, which is former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s hometown, lies about 140 miles (225 kilometers) south of Mosul.
In a press conference in Baghdad last week, which was also attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Prime Minister Abadi said the liberation of Tikrit would also pave the way for Iraqi efforts to retake parts of the country’s largest province, Anbar, from ISIS, where the group currently controls the provincial capital Ramadi and parts of Fallujah.
Hamza Mustafa contributed additional reporting from Baghdad.