TIKRIT, Iraq — Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations used a visit to Baghdad on Monday to warn the Iraqi government to treat civilians decently after it liberates territories like Tikrit, where a government offensive has been supported by heavy American-led airstrikes for the past five days.
“Civilians freed from the brutality of Daesh should not have to then fear their liberators,” Mr. Ban said, in a statement emailed to reporters after Iraqi officials canceled a scheduled news conference with him without explanation. Daesh is the Arabic pronunciation of the initials ISIS, by which the extremists in the Islamic State group are also known.
“One form of violence cannot replace another,” he said. The secretary general was clearly referring to reports, such as one by Human Rights Watch recently, that Iraqi Shiite militias were carrying out abuses in Sunni areas of Salahuddin Province that they had liberated from the extremists.
However, Mr. Ban may have joined his Iraqi governments hosts in speaking too soon about progress in Tikrit. Evidence is mounting that fighters of the Islamic State are much more numerous in the city, and hold much more territory, than the Iraqi government has previously revealed.
A visit by The New York Times to Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin Province, over the weekend made it clear that the Islamic State still controlled about 20 square miles of the city — everything from the edge of Tikrit University in the north, to the outskirts of the New Ouja neighborhood in the south, according to interviews with military officials and fighters.
That encompasses most of the populous parts of the city, which generally lie west of the Tigris River; all of its main downtown and business districts; the government quarter; and the former palace of Saddam Hussein. Government forces remain mostly east of the Tigris River, which was predominantly rural, agricultural land, or on the suburban or rural outskirts of the city on the western, southern and northern sides.
Government officials have said that all civilians have left Tikrit, which before the war had a population of a quarter million, with the exception of die-hard supporters of the Islamic State and some of their family members.
Coalition officials denied reports from Iran that American drones killed two Iranian advisers in Tikrit on March 23 — two days before American aircraft began bombing runs on the city. The Iranian website sepahnews.ir, the official website of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, reported the burials of the two advisers.
“The coalition only targets Daesh,” said a statement issued by the United States Embassy here. The embassy noted that no coalition airstrikes of any sort occurred on March 23, and added, “No forces fighting against Daesh have been injured as a result of coalition strikes in Tikrit.”
The American military told congressional leaders last week that it had agreed to support Iraqi operations in Tikrit with airstrikes only after being assured that Shiite militias, many of them with Iranian advisers, were pulled out of the fight. That was in part to avoid the possibility of accidentally killing Iranians and members of militias that were not coordinating with the Iraqi military, but also to avoid the appearance of acting as Iran’s air force in Iraq.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also made it clear that all of the Shiite militias that remained in the Tikrit area would be under the complete control of the Iraqi military.
There was considerable confusion in Tikrit, however, over the terms of that agreement, and while some of the militiamen said they would pull out of the fight, many others were clearly on the front lines of it. In addition, many new militia fighters, officially known as the popular mobilization forces, were seen arriving in significant numbers in Tikrit on Saturday and Sunday.
“The popular mobilization did not withdraw; they are still here,” Lt. Gen. Abdul al-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the Salahuddin Operations Command who is in overall charge of the Tikrit offensive, said in an interview over the weekend. “Some of them were sent to do different duties inside our area of operation.”
General Saadi said that no military wanted to be dependent on militias and irregular forces. “If we were a complete army, I would say no,” he said. “But we need the popular mobilization forces — the battle requires them to be with us,” he said.
Shiite militias made up most of the force that began the operation to oust the Islamic State on March 2, and some of the groups’ leaders boasted that they would subdue Tikrit without any help from the American-led coalition. The offensive stalled after three weeks, however, at which point Iraq’s prime minister asked for the American airstrikes.
Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Tikrit and Mujib Mashal from Kabul, Afghanistan.
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(via NY Times)