A top Iraqi official on Wednesday declared victory in the fight to push the militant group Islamic State out of Tikrit, though there were reports that gunfire continued in the northern city.
Defense Minister Khaled Obeidi made the declaration in a pomp-ridden video broadcast on state channels and social media, saying pro-government forces had achieved a "brilliant victory" not only in the city about 90 miles north of Baghdad but in surrounding Salahuddin province.
"The men have accomplished the mission and fulfilled the promise ... by liberating Salahuddin province and purifying it from the obscenity of the [Islamic State] fighters," he said.
The Defense Ministry issued a statement stressing that the operation to retake Tikrit was “nothing more than a new point to launch the operation to liberate Nineveh province and what remains of Anbar province," according to state news outlet Al Iraqiyah. The statement was referring to the long-anticipated offensive to retake the city of Mosul in Nineveh that was overrun by Islamic State militants in June.
Prime Minister Haidar Abadi toured parts of Tikrit and raised an Iraqi flag in the center, according to a statement released by his office on Wednesday.
Despite the assertions, it remained unclear if the city had been completely under government control. CNN’s correspondent in the city reported hearing continued gunfire, while pro-Islamic State supporters on social media said "the enemy had yet to enter some neighborhoods Tikrit," according to a Twitter account called "Iraqi Revolution." Other supporters reported several attacks against pro-government forces in the city.
The campaign to reclaim Salahuddin and Tikrit from Islamic State hands is the largest to date by Iraqi pro-government forces. Launched in early March, it mobilized army and police units but was spearheaded by an estimated 20,000 irregular Shiite Muslim militiamen. A small number of Sunni Muslims from the province joined the fighting.
The offensive stalled several times at the city's outskirts, despite government claims of victory. Military officials blamed the delays on thousands of explosive devices as well as many Islamic State suicide bombers and snipers.
The Islamic State overran large parts of Iraq and Syria in a lightning advance last year. A further push against the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq spurred the creation of a U.S.-led coalition to destroy Islamic State. Coalition warplanes joined the fight in Tikrit last week, carrying out airstrikes against the militants’ positions.
Bulos is a special correspondent.