Baghdad: Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen entered the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit on Wednesday, authorities said, breaching one of the biggest strongholds of the extremists in a key test for Iraqi forces.
Allied Iraqi forces entered the city through its northern Qadisiyya neighborhood, where authorities quickly established a supply line to reinforce troops, Salahuddin police Brig. Kheyon Rasheed told the state-run Iraqiyya television.
"The terrorists are seizing the cars of civilians trying to leave the city and they are trying to make a getaway," Rasheed said. It wasn't immediately clear whether the troops and militiamen faced any resistance.
A local official in Iraq's Salahuddin province also confirmed that Iraqi troops and the militias made it into Qadisiyya. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief journalists.
Video obtained by The Associated Press showed troops and militiamen marching alongside Humvees flying Iraqi military and Shiite militia flags in that northern neighborhood, the skyline of central Tikrit towering ahead of them.
The Islamic State group holds about a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared caliphate. Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province about 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, is one of the largest cities held by Islamic State militants and lies on the road connecting Baghdad to Mosul.
Retaking it will give Iraqi forces a major supply link to retake Mosul.
US military officials have that said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, likely will begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops.
But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces retook the town of Alam on the outskirts of Tikrit. They also sealed off Tikrit to prepare for an offensive inside the city. Hidden bombs and snipers had slowed the troops' progress.
Iraqi government officials touted the high morale of Iraqi security forces going into the Tikrit operation, particularly after liberating Beiji, home to Iraq's largest refinery, in November.
But the battle for Tikrit is likely to involve street-to-street fighting, something Iraqi forces have struggled with in the past.
Iranian military advisers have been helping guide Iraqi forces in their advance on Tikrit. Among those directing operations is Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force.