TIKRIT, Iraq, March 29 (UPI) -- The Iraqi army's advance into Tikrit has been stalled by roadside bombs, sniper attacks and back-and-forth urban combat even as U.S.-led coalition airstrikes concentrate bombing efforts around the northern Iraqi city.
First falling to Islamic State forces in June of last year, Tikrit is seen as a vital stepping stone to seizing the larger, strategically important city of Mosul, where thousands of Iraqi soldiers dropped weapons and shed uniforms before running from a numerically inferior force of several hundred IS fighters last summer.
On March 1 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the Iraqi army to attack and capture Tikrit, but IS forces repositioned their fighters, in some cases inside buildings, forcing the estimated 30,000 Iraqi troops and volunteer militiamen to pause their operation for nearly a month. The New York Times on Saturday quoted an Iraqi army general who estimated IS strength in Tikrit at 400 fighters.
Concern over heavy casualties prompted al-Abadi to reverse an original refusal of assistance from coalition air-power, and the U.S.-led coalition began bombing positions in Tikrit Wednesday.
According to U.S. Central Command, 17 airstrikes hit multiple IS positions on Thursday, while on Friday another three strikes destroyed IS units and a car bomb.
Reports Saturday and Sunday suggested that Iraqi advances into the city were slow-going. Lt. Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, the commander of Iraqi Army ground forces nationwide, told The Times that his forces were "not in any hurry," a sentiment reinforced by Tikrit's mayor.
"A rapid advance in a city where the ground is littered with bombs and booby-traps is too tough to achieve," Mayor Osama al-Tikriti said on Sunday.
Soldiers from the Iraqi Army's 66th Brigade, along with black-uniformed militiamen, hold static positions on the front-line in central Tikrit, and random IS sniper attacks killed two soldiers on Friday, an Iraqi army private told The Times.
Gen. Ghassan Nooraldeen described a back-and-forth urban fight, telling The Times his forces "take one area and after half an hour they get it back, then half an hour later we get it back. It's like that."
The U.S.-stipulated removal of Iran-supported Shia militia from the front line in exchange for coalition air support has been an equally slow process, The Times reports, as the militiamen's willingness to fight generally outweighs that of the regular army.
"They need us here," Ali Abdul Razak, a Shia militiaman from the Qataba Brigade, told The Times.
On Friday Prime Minister al-Abadi predicted that Tikrit would fall soon. CNN quoted him as saying that Iraqi forces were "now planning an offensive on Mosul in the coming few months."