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About 75% of the besieged Iraqi city of Tikrit is now back in government control, the head of a key paramilitary force taking part in the attack told CNN on Thursday.
The other 25% is in the hands of about 150 ISIS fighters who continue to hold out, said Main Al-Kadhimi, commander of the Hashd Al-Shaabi militia.
There has been no independent confirmation of such a significant advance by the Iraqi forces. But they have been making progress in recent days.
ISIS’ spokesman, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, called reports of coalition-member victories “delusional and fake.” He spoke of the coalition’s use of fighter jets, heavy artillery and tanks, saying it is a “nightmare and will go eventually.”
On Wednesday, joint Iraqi forces gained control of Tikrit Military Hospital, a few blocks south of the presidential palace. It’s part of their ongoing quest to wrest control from ISIS, which captured the city last year.
The predominantly Shiite militia has been working with Iraqi troops as well as Sunni fighters to try to regain Tikrit.
Tikrit, best known to Westerners as the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, fell in June to ISIS, which has captured large areas of Iraq and Syria for what it says is its Islamic caliphate.
On March 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Iraqi forces to retake Tikrit and Salaheddin province.
ISIS wasn’t making it easy, however. The Sunni extremist group blew up a key bridge near Tikrit, preventing the joint Iraqi forces from using it to cross the Tigris River to approach the city from the east.
Nevertheless, forces have made progress, forcing ISIS fighters to retreat toward the city center from front-line positions, Hashd Al-Shaabi’s media office said.
There have been several failed attempts to recapture Tikrit since the second half of 2014. If Iraq regains control of the city, it could mean that retaking Mosul – a city 10 times bigger – is possible.
The Tikrit offensive involves around 30,000 fighters.