Iraqi Claims That ‘Tikrit Has Fallen’ Is Disputedhttp://www.nytimes.com/
BAGHDAD — The prime minister of Iraq claimed that his country’s security forces had reached the center of Tikrit on Tuesday. A subtitle crawling across TV screens tuned to the official Iraqiya television network went further: “Tikrit has fallen to us,” it said. On YouTube, an Iraqi flag was shown flying atop a downtown government building.
Tikrit had not yet actually fallen, though, according to accounts from several people in Tikrit. Extremists of the Islamic State, also known asISIS, remained in the much-contested city. Other top officials in Baghdad moderated the prime minister’s announcement, saying that while gains had been made in the city, the fight was continuing.
It was not the first time that reports of Tikrit’s fall had been greatly exaggerated. In June, the spokesman for the Iraqi military, Gen. Qassim Atta, did much the same. “Reports and surveillance show that ISIS leaders have ordered a retreat,” he said, adding that small pockets of insurgents remained on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s former palace but were busy burying their dead.
The Iraqi news media showed a national flag flying from the government building in downtown Tikrit that time as well.
In fact, though, the extremists continued to hold most of the city, and cut the main highway to the north and at times to the south. And for the past four weeks, they have withstood an offensive by the Iraqi military and its Iranian-trained militia allies.
The American-led military coalition has been carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State positions around the city since last Wednesday to aid the Iraqi offensive. Those raids paused at dawn on Tuesday, perhaps to allow ground forces to advance, according to eyewitnesses.
Soon came the images of the Iraqi flag over the government building and reports that various landmarks in Tikrit had been cleared of extremists, including the Republican Palace, one of Saddam Hussein’s former residences.
“Our security forces have arrived at the city center of Tikrit and have liberated the southern and western sides, and are advancing to liberate the entire city,” the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, told his cabinet on Tuesday morning, according to his official website.
The subtitle on Iraqiya shortly after reinterpreted that as follows: “The commander in chief of the armed forces Haider al-Abadi announces the liberation of Tikrit entirely.”
In Tikrit, however, an Iraqi general, who asked not to be named so as to avoid openly contradicting the prime minister, said that reports of Tikrit’s fall were at best premature.
“God willing, it will fall,” he said.
Other military officers and a civilian official reached in Tikrit said it was true that Iraqi forces had advanced into the center of the city and had entered government buildings and parts of the Republican Palace. But they said that parts of the palace remained in Islamic State hands and that fighting was continuing.
A Pentagon spokesman said in a statement that “we can confirm” the security forces’ “advancement into Tikrit to liberate the city center as well as other parts of the city.”
As recently as Monday, Islamic State fighters were present in most populated parts of Tikrit, an area of about 20 square miles, according to the Iraqi military and fighters in Tikrit.
“Only some portions of the city have been retaken,” Ammar Hikmat, the deputy governor of Salahuddin Province, said Tuesday evening. “It is not liberated yet.”
As night fell, another Salahuddin official was more upbeat. Khalid al-Khazrajy, the deputy head of the security committee of the provincial council, said that government forces had raised their flag over the palace, and urged all government employees in Tikrit to return to work on Wednesday.
Late in the day, Saad al-Hadith, a spokesman for the prime minister, elaborated on Mr. Abadi’s remarks.
“The security forces, federal police and army, popular mobilization forces and tribal leaders were able to liberate the eastern and western sides of the city of Tikrit,” he said. “The international alliance air force played a major role in the operation, along with the Iraqi air force. We are expecting to liberate Tikrit entirely within the next hours.”