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Iraqi troops, militia retake strategic town north of Tikrit

BAGHDAD: Iraqi troops and militias drove Islamic State militants out of the town of al-Alam on Tuesday, fighters and a local official said, clearing the way for an offensive to retake the nearby city of Tikrit from the ultra-radical group.

A Reuters photographer saw dozens of families, who had earlier fled al-Alam to escape Islamic State control, returning to the town, celebrating and slaughtering sheep for the victorious fighters.

“I announce officially that the town is under the total control of security forces, the Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) units and local tribal fighters,” said local mayor Laith al-Jubouri.

“We rejoice in this victory and we want al-Alam to be the launchpad for the liberation of Tikrit and Mosul,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Tikrit, the home city of executed former president Saddam Hussein, is the focus of an offensive by the army and Shi’ite militias known as Hashid Shaabi, backed by local Sunni forces. An attack on Mosul is expected later this year.

The army and militias now control the two towns to the north and south of Tikrit along the Tigris river valley and appear ready to move on the city itself.

Security officials said the assault on Tikrit could start as early as Wednesday, although the 10-day campaign has so far been marked by gradual and steady advances rather than rapid attacks.

There have been fears that the Shi’ite-dominated security forces and militia would seek revenge on local Sunni residents for killings carried out under the Islamic State control of the area. In the nearby village of Albu Ajil, local officials said houses had been set on fire by the militia, but there was no sign of revenge attacks in al-Alam.

Islamic State fighters seized Tikrit and much of northern Iraq last June before declaring a cross-border caliphate in Sunni Muslim regions of Syria and Iraq under their control.

If Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government is able to retake Tikrit it would be the first city clawed back from Islamic State and would give Baghdad momentum in its campaign to recapture Mosul, the largest city held by the ultra-radical Sunni Islamists.

Islamic State has sent reinforcements to Tikrit from other parts of its self-proclaimed caliphate further north, where it came under attack on Monday from Kurdish forces around the oil-rich-city of Kirkuk.

A Kurdish commander said his forces would press on with their offensive and had captured another village on Tuesday. They had stopped in an area called Kwas, but would resume in coming days, Major General Omar Hassan said.

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