Iraqi officials claimed on Tuesday that government forces had finally succeeded in the largest operation against ISIS militants to date by retaking the city of Tikrit.
The north-central city is infamous as the home of former dictator Saddam Hussein. In recent weeks it has been the focal point of the fight to drive ISIS militants from the large swaths of Iraq they seized in their lightning summer advance. On Tuesday afternoon, Hader Abadi, Iraq's prime minister, announced that the city had been "liberated."
Government media broadcast photos of soldiers raising the Iraqi flag over key buildings such as the hospital, main police station, and the main government building for Saladin province, of which Tikrit is the capital. The prime minister "congratulates Iraqi security forces and popular volunteers on the historic milestone," Abadi's account tweeted, though the Iraqi government has made premature claims of victory in Tikrit and elsewhere in the country before.
Hours after the statement was made, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes fighting ISIS told AFP that ISIS remains in control of parts of Tikrit and "there is still work to be done."
A broad range of local and international forces have taken part in the Tikrit fight. Some 30,000 troops were reportedly involved in the offensive — with more than three-quarters of them members of Shiite militia groups backed by advisers from Iran and Hezbollah, according to America's top general.
The U.S. government initially sat out the fight due to concerns over the involvement of the militia and the presence of the foreign advisers. But it began airstrikes last week after reassuring Congress that the militias had been pulled from the fighting — though reporters on the ground said the militia were still heavily involved.
The Iraqi government had previously promised a quick victory in Tikrit when the offensive began in early March, only to see its forces bogged down by snipers and IEDs after some early gains.
While the battle for Tikrit has been billed as a prelude to an offensive to retake ISIS's stronghold in the northern city of Mosul, that the campaign lasted as long as it did — and required not only a massive number of militiamen but also the eventual assistance of U.S. air support — does not speak well to the readiness of the government to move against a much more difficult target.
Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security expert based in Baghdad, said that the surprising pace of the government's gains on Tuesday may have resulted from there being far fewer ISIS fighters still holed up in the city than it had previously estimated. "They overestimated," he said.
This may have been an effort to distract the government from other key fronts — dealing it and the militia heavy casualties along the way.
In addition to Mosul, ISIS also controls vast swaths of Anbar province and has reportedly been making gains in the city of Ramadi of late.
As the Iraqi government prepares to take a victory lap over its victory in Tikrit, the question remains how ready it is for the real struggle in Mosul.
With additional reporting by Saud Murrani in Baghdad.