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As Iraqi Forces Press Into Tikrit, Hundreds Of ISIS FIghters Remain


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has been pounding targets in Tikrit since Wednesday. They're trying to dislodge fighters from the self-named Islamic State, who took over that city last year. Tikrit is a couple hours drive north of Baghdad, and it's the biggest city Iraq's forces have tried to retake since large parts of the north and west of the country fell to ISIS.

NPR's Alice Fordham traveled with Iraqi forces to a forward-operating base. She joins us now from Baghdad. Alice, as we said, U.S. forces have been bombing Tikrit for days now. You have been with Iraqi troops who were positioned on the outskirts of Tikrit. Have they made much progress?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, it's still going really slowly. Over the last week, some of the key villages and the territory around the city have been taken. So it's all but surrounded. But the forces there, the federal police that I was talking to, say there are still hundreds of ISIS fighters inside the city. They hold one entrance into the city which is actually on the Tigris River. So they're able to use that to resupply. And they've mined and booby-trapped so much of the city that forward movement is very difficult. So the Iraqi forces say they're pushing forward, but they don't say that they're doing so quickly.

MARTIN: The U.S. role in all of this has complicated the assault. Can you talk about how that's playing out on the ground?

FORDHAM: The situation there has been complicated because a key part of the forces that have been pushing into Tikrit are paramilitary forces. They're allied with the Iraqi government, but they're not part of the police. And they're not part of the Army. They're informal. They don't like being called militias, but that's what a lot of people call them. And these guys are almost all Shiite Muslims. They're backed by Iran, and they stand accused in some places of sectarian killings of civilians in these Sunni-dominated areas that they're pushing into.

Now American officials have repeatedly expressed concerns about these forces. And those Shiite commanders have made it clear that the feeling is mutual, to say the least. But the government in Baghdad decided they couldn't take Tikrit without asking the United States for airstrikes, which they did. And those started on March 25.

MARTIN: So does that mean, Alice, that these U.S. airstrikes are supporting these militias that are essentially being funded by Iran?

FORDHAM: Right, exactly. It's a paradoxical situation that the United States and Iran would find themselves on the same side in this battle. A Pentagon spokesman says those Shiite forces have been completely sidelined, and that it's the Special Forces and federal police taking the lead. But actually up there today, I have to say, the Shiite commanders and the police insisted they were still very much fighting together and that the Shiite forces had not withdrawn at all.

MARTIN: So Iraqi forces have been able to retake some of this territory in and around Tikrit. Can they hold it?

FORDHAM: They have been able to hold quite a bit of the turf that they've pushed into. I didn't travel around the whole of the city. So I saw the villages just south of it that they held. Broadly speaking, the area to the south is held by the federal police. The area to the west is held by the Army. And the area to the north is Special Forces. And then there's areas that are held by these paramilitary Shiite forces. And as you drive up there, there's a, you know, a multitude of uniforms and flags and graffiti - these informal militias operating alongside official forces manning checkpoints and so on. So yes, they're holding turf but in a rather kind of patchwork sort of a way.

MARTIN: And briefly, Alice, U.S. officials have been concerned about possible sectarian violence in some of these areas. Have you seen any evidence of that?

FORDHAM: Well, I was only in the village of Awja, which is where Saddam Hussein is from, actually. So it's somewhat notorious. And there's a lot of destruction - many houses charred and ruined, carcasses of cars, definitely no civilians out and about on the streets. There have been concerns that Shiite forces torched Sunni civilian's houses deliberately. But it's hard to tell. And the commanders say that ISIS left so many booby-traps that the village was destroyed which is certainly concurrent with the extremist's tactics.

MARTIN: NPR's Alice Fordham speaking with us from Baghdad. Thanks so much, Alice.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.