Iraqi soldiers and Shia militiamen ahead of Tikrit offensive (file)
Iraqi soldiers and Shia militiamen ahead of Tikrit offensive (file) Reuters

Iraqi commanders said Thursday that time was on their side as government forces tighten their siege of Tikrit and warned they would not be rushed into a final assault.

Since the operation to retake Tikrit from Islamic State was launched at the start of the month, thousands of troops and militia have reconquered the land around the city.

On Wednesday, they moved deep into Tikrit's sprawling northern district of Qadisiyah and closed in on the few hundred terrorist fighters holed up in the city center.

But Police Staff Major General Bahaa al-Azzawi said that despite their superior numbers and firepower, government forces would refrain from advancing too fast to avoid unnecessary losses.

"We don't want to be rushed because we want to avoid casualties," he told AFP in Albu Ajil, a village from which Tikrit can be seen across the Tigris river. "Tikrit is sealed off from all sides."

Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of the volunteer Popular Mobilization units, told reporters on the front lines late Wednesday that there was no way out for the ISIS fighters trapped in Tikrit.

"They have two choices, surrender or death," said Ameri, whose Badr organization is one of the largest Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq and controls the interior ministry.

"We do not need to attack. That could lead to victims in the ranks of the fighters," he said.

An AFP correspondent in Albu Ajil reported sporadic shelling of Tikrit by government forces on Thursday.

None of the Iraqi fighting forces involved in the battle have provided casualty figures since the start of the operation to wrest back Tikrit, the largest since ISIS captured the city nine months ago.

Dozens of bodies are being driven down to Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Najaf almost every day, however, and, while government forces have had the upper hand, ISIS has done damage with suicide car bombs, booby traps and snipers.