In Tikrit, a celebratory mood but lingering concerns

The Washington Post reports: On Wednesday, there were no signs of civilians in the city center. An elderly woman and her daughter found there had been “taken to somewhere secure,” one militiaman said. Houses were largely intact, indicating that the city fell with relatively little combat. Iraqi forces had outnumbered the militants by at least 10 to 1, according to estimates by Iraqi officials. In addition, the U.S.-led strikes had killed several of the Islamic State’s leaders in the city.

But the scene is likely to be different in neighborhoods to the north, where some militants have dug in. The United Nations released images in February that showed that at least 536 buildings in the city have been damaged by the fighting.

Security forces had begun the painstaking task of defusing hundreds of roadside bombs and booby traps left by the retreating militants, with explosions ringing through the streets as they went about their task.

About 185 booby-trapped houses have been identified in the city, in addition to about 900 improvised explosive devices, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghaban said as he visited one of Hussein’s former palaces on the banks of the Tigris.

The largest palace had suffered significant damage, seemingly from airstrikes, with an entire wing sagging. Iraqi military officials have said that the strikes helped significantly in softening the way for ground operations after the offensive stalled — although the Shiite militiamen among the pro-government forces are reluctant to acknowledge that the air raids played a role.

Ghaban spoke a few feet from the site of one of the Islamic State’s worst atrocities, the slaughter of what the government estimates to have been as many as 1,700 soldiers from Camp Speicher, a military base just outside Tikrit.

Trails of dried blood could seen on the walls along the river, where soldiers were summarily executed and thrown in the water.

“Innocent blood has been spilled here,” Ghaban said. “We don’t want revenge. We want to liberate people and the land.”

The emotionally charged nature of the Tikrit fight had raised concerns about the potential for abuses by the plethora of armed groups taking part.

In a televised speech on Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi insisted that only Iraqi blood was being spilled in the battle. But the Farsi graffiti scrawled next to an Islamic State flag painted on a wall outside the city’s presidential palace seemed to suggest otherwise. [Continue reading…]

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