ISIS continued to hold in Tikrit as Iraq pauses their offensive

Islamic State militants on Monday continued to hold parts of the city of Tikrit against a much larger pro-government force after two weeks of battle, as Iraqi officials said they were pausing their offensive to call for reinforcements and to preserve property and civilian lives.

The slowing of the operation came amid reports that the tomb of Saddam Hussein in the nearby village of Awja, a politically and emotionally charged symbol for all sides, had been destroyed in the recent fighting. Its roof appeared to have collapsed, with rubble strewn around the area, footage from The Associated Press showed.

Iraqi officials and allied militia leaders have been saying since last week that they are in control of the battlefield. They said that they had surrounded the handful of Islamic State fighters remaining in Tikrit, and that full government control would be restored there in a matter of days.

There has been intense international pressure to avoid civilian casualties and revenge attacks on people or property in an offensive by a mostly Shiite force in a hub of the so-called Sunni triangle. Around two-thirds of the pro-government force is made up of the mostly Shiite militias now known as popular mobilization forces.

As the days pass, critics are asking why the government’s 30,000-strong force has been unable to dislodge the last Islamic State fighters — and whether the reduced pace is a bad sign for future efforts to root the militants out of their self-declared capital, the much larger city of Mosul.

“There is a minimum amount of Daesh fighters in Tikrit,” said Alaa Makki, a former lawmaker and a member of the mostly Sunni Islamic Party, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “They are controlling the situation there — wow!”

But Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, Iraq’s interior minister, said the pause was deliberate and temporary.

“We want to give the people of Tikrit the chance to evacuate their areas in order to save their lives, and also to try as much as possible to preserve the infrastructure of the city,” he said in an interview on the state television channel Al Iraqiya.

“We don’t want the city to be destroyed, and we want to try to reduce the number of casualties among the security forces,” he added.

Officials said the goal was to restore surrounding villages to the control of locals, including Sunnis who have joined the mostly Shiite militias.

The footage of Hussein’s tomb showed a government fighter standing on its slanting roof, which appeared to have been knocked from its support columns. How and when the damage was done was not immediately clear. Some residents said it occurred last fall in an abortive Iraqi offensive, but others say that the damage done then was minor.

Hussein’s brutal rule was particularly repressive to the Shiite majority, crushing an uprising in 1991. He was jailed after being overthrown by the United States-led invasion in 2003, and was executed in 2006 by the Iraqi government. His memory remains a rallying point for Baathist military officers who made common cause with Sunni jihadists against the American occupation and later against the Shiite-led government.

Iraqi officials have said that some of those Baathist figures are still working with the Islamic State and that the tomb had attracted a cluster of the group’s fighters. Even though Hussein ran a secular government, he is seen by some as a symbol of lost Sunni influence. For their part, some Sunni residents have expressed fears that the militias would unearth the corpse or damage the mausoleum, although some residents say the body was moved to an undisclosed location months ago.

The mausoleum was once a gleaming, sumptuous building where people left flowers and paid their respects to the deposed leader.

In Al Alam, north of Tikrit, people continued to return to their homes, calling for the government to restore services quickly. Footage on Iraqi and other news channels showed scenes of celebration, and residents said they had been treated well by the militia members.

But few, if any, residents appeared to have returned to Albu Ajeel, to the south, where many militia members suspect residents helped the Islamic State kill more than 1,000 Shiite soldiers.

To the north, Kurdish pesh merga forces reported continued progress against the Islamic State. Miryawan Abdullah, a major general in the forces, said that on Monday morning, the forces had taken over three villages along the road between Baghdad and Kirkuk, and were working to defuse explosives left behind by the militant group.

Also on Monday, Kurdish officials announced that they were investigating whether Islamic State militants used chlorine in two bombings, on Dec. 26 and on Jan. 28. Over the weekend, the officials said that residue from another bombing on Jan. 23 had tested positive for high concentrations of the chemical in what they said was a laboratory certified by the European Union.

In October, Amerian and Iraqi officials said they were investigating whether the Islamic State used chlorine in September during clashes farther south, in Balad and Dhuluiya. There has been no independent confirmation of the Kurdish assertions.

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