Shiite Muslim militias on Monday rejoined Iraqi government forces in their battle to gain control of the strategic central city of Tikrit, after a four-day retreat to protest a U.S.-led coalition’s intervention in the campaign.
Until last week, the irregular Shiite forces, known as the Popular Mobilization, had formed the backbone of the Iraqi government’s effort to retake Tikrit from Islamic State extremists who have controlled the hometown of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein since staging a lightning sweep across Iraq last year.
The U.S.-led coalition conducted 17 airstrikes in Tikrit on Wednesday at the request of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, reversing a policy of nonintervention based in part on the strong presence of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Iran has given significant logistical and material support to favored groups, including the Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous.
The coalition’s intervention in the battle for Tikrit reportedly came with the caveat that the militias would no longer be part of the operation. Popular Mobilization officials, however, said the decision to withdraw from the fighting had been their own.
“As of 4 p.m. today, we have returned to the operations command of the Tikrit offensive,” Jafar Husseini, spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, said Monday when contacted by telephone in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. He said coalition airstrikes against Tikrit had ended, paving the way for the return of the militias.
“The command of the operation is now completely in the hands of the Popular Mobilization,” Husseini said.
Naim Aboudi, spokesman for the League of the Righteous, said that militia also had begun preparations to return to the battlefield after a Friday meeting with Haider Abadi in which the Iraqi prime minister promised the coalition’s strikes would soon end.
“We began [on Sunday] to mobilize our forces so they could join their colleagues in the army and police,” Aboudi said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.
A news release issued Monday by the U.S.-led coalition said its forces had conducted three airstrikes on Tikrit overnight. A spokesman contacted by phone declined to confirm that its airstrikes had ended, describing the operations as “ongoing.”
A local television outlet, Al Sumaria, quoted a security official Monday as saying that “security forces from the federal police and the army supported by factions of the Popular Mobilization were able to control” a medical compound in Tikrit.
The Tikrit offensive, which began in early March, is the largest government operation to date against Islamic State, which took control of the city in its stunning conquest of about one-third of Iraqi territory last summer.
The Iraqi government, then fearing the group would soon reach Baghdad, called upon Iraqi youth to fight alongside army and police forces. Islamic State’s expansion into northern Iraq later prompted the United States to forge a coalition to mount an extensive air campaign against the group.
The Tikrit offensive includes an estimated 20,000 Shiite militiamen bolstering army and police units, as well as limited numbers of Sunni Arab tribal fighters hailing from the surrounding Salahuddin Province.
The government has gone to great lengths to downplay the sectarian nature of the attacking force, casting the operation as all-Iraqi.
After claiming the campaign all but complete, pro-government forces were hampered from entering the city last week by what military officials said were thousands of explosive devices and Islamic State snipers and suicide bombers. The coalition airstrikes were called to break the militants’ last barriers.
Bulos is a special correspondent.