Shia militiamen gesture during clashes with ISIS in Iraq
Shia militiamen gesture during clashes with ISIS in Iraq Reuters

Thousands of Iraqi troops and militiamen laid siege to jihadist fighters holed up in Tikrit on Thursday, wary of rushing into streets littered with bombs and infested with snipers.

After making major gains in and around the city on Wednesday, commanders were confident that Baghdad's biggest victory yet against the Islamic State group was only a matter of time.

"Now we are moving to the second phase of our plan," Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi told reporters in Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital.

"We are very keen for our losses to be as low as possible. Time is on our side, we have the initiative," he said on the 11th day of the offensive.  

None of the fighting forces involved 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 south 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.

"We don't want to be rushed because we want to avoid casualties," Police Staff Major General Bahaa al-Azzawi told AFP in Albu Ajil, a village from which Tikrit can be seen across the Tigris river.

"Tikrit is sealed off from all sides," he said.

Troops and police as well as volunteers from the Popular Mobilization units moved deep into the northern half of Tikrit on Wednesday and finished securing outlying areas.

Sunni tribes fighting

Tikrit was the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, whose Baath party collaborated with the jihadists when they took over almost a third of the country last June.  

With crucial military backing from neighboring Iran and a 60-nation US-led coalition, Baghdad has rolled back some of the losses.

It started with operations to secure the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and bolster Baghdad's defenses, then worked its way north, retaking Diyala province earlier this year.

Commanders see the recapture of overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Tikrit as a stepping stone for the reconquest of Mosul further north, Iraq's second city, which once had a population of two million.

Analysts say the battle for Tikrit is also a key test of how well the regular army can work with the myriad of militia groups and prevent reprisal attacks against Sunnis.

The defense minister, who is himself Sunni, said he was impressed with the level of cooperation and played down concerns that victory in Tikrit could further alienate the minority community.

"What caught my attention and was very positive, was that I met a number of fighters, maybe more than 250, who are all sons of Tikrit," he said.

"It sends a very positive message to the Iraqi people and lifts the spirit of the security forces," Obeidi said.

Concern for civilians

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi too hailed the advances made by government forces when he spoke to students at a technology institute.

"With our unity we achieve victory and the greatest example of this is today in Salaheddin and Anbar," he said.

ISIS launched a spectacular attack on the government-held heart of Anbar's capital Ramadi on Wednesday, using at least 12 simultaneous car bombs.  

Seventeen people were killed, mostly members of the security forces, in addition to a minimum of seven suicide bombers.

An Australian teenager was reportedly one of them, which Prime Minister Tony Abbott Thursday described as "absolutely horrific".  

With Iraqi forces choking jihadist fighters hunkered down in Tikrit's smoldering center, it was unclear how many civilians might still be trapped there.  

Shia militia leaders had warned before the offensive began that it would be an opportunity to mete out revenge for the massacre by ISIS in June of hundreds of military cadets at a nearby base called Speicher, most if not all of whom were Shia.  

They have since publicly urged their men to refrain from any acts that could tarnish a victory and relatively few reports of abuses have surfaced in nearly two weeks.

However, Amnesty International cautioned it was still too early to tell if Tikrit had been a cleaner operation than usual.

"For now access to combat areas is restricted and information about abuses may take time to filter out," the rights group's senior crisis response adviser Donatella Rovera told AFP.