ISIS Prepare to Make Last Stand as Iraqi Forces Close in on Tikrit

Tikrit
Masked Shi'ite fighters hold their weapons in Al Hadidiya, south of Tikrit, en route to the Islamic State-controlled al-Alam town, where they are preparing to launch an offensive on Saturday, March 6, 2015. Thaier Al-Sudani/REUTERS

Iraqi forces backed by Sunni and Shia militiamen have completely encircled and cut off the roads in and out of the ISIS-held city of Tikrit, as the terror group's remaining militants in the city centre prepare to make their last stand.

As Iraqi troops edge closer to the city centre, the battle for central Tikrit will see Baghdad's troops, supported by the Shia-majority Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), involved in complex street-to-street battles with ISIS, battling against the terror group's boobytraps, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers.

Following their recapture of al-Dour town on the southern outskirts of Tikrit on Sunday, Iraqi troops have also forced ISIS fighters out of the town of al-Alam just north of the city, local mayor Laith al-Jubouri told Reuters.

"I announce officially that the town is under the total control of security forces, the Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) units and local tribal fighters," said al-Jubouri.

"We rejoice in this victory and we want al-Alam to be the launchpad for the liberation of Tikrit and Mosul," he added.

Sajad Jiyad, Iraq expert and research director at the independent consultancy Integrity, when asked if the surrounding of Tikrit signalled that this would be ISIS's last stand in the city, said: "Yes. Reports are indicating that Iraqis have completely encircled Tikrit and there is basically no way in or out of Tikrit. They have got checkpoints on all of the highways and all of the small roads."

Analysts believe that there are approximately 2,000 ISIS fighters still in the city, meaning they are hugely outnumbered by the combined Iraqi forces, who are estimated to boast 30,000 troops.

"I expect that the ones that are still in [the city] are probably die-hards and I doubt the Iraqis will be able to get them to surrender, so I think it will be a fight to the death," adds Jiyad, speaking from Baghdad.

In the event that Iraqi forces capture the strategic city centre and oust ISIS, which Jiyad estimates could take another month, it would be the biggest defeat of the radical Islamist group as they have held the city for nine months. The hometown of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is also situated in a Sunni heartland, where ISIS expect core support.

Photos posted on social media today showed a notorious Iranian commander, who is spearheading the offensive on the city, walking amongst Iraqi troops as they continue their advance. Major general Qasem Soleimani, the former leader of the elite Quds Force, the special operations arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is an advisor sent to Iraq to oversee operations against ISIS and provide the vital link to Tehran's material support for the Shia militias on the ground.

Tikrit was the site of mass executions of Iraqi forces by ISIS militants at the time of its capture last June when the terror group launched its march across northern Iraq, capturing key Sunni areas. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report claimed that approximately 770 captured soldiers were killed after the terror group took control of former U.S. military base in the city, Camp Speicher, in executions which HRW advisor Fred Abrahams described as "crimes against humanity".