Iraqi commanders have said that time is on their side as government forces tightened their siege of Tikrit and warned they would not be rushed into a final assault.
Since the operation to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group was launched at the start of the month, thousands of troops and Shia militia have re-conquered 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 ISIL fighters holed up in the city centre.
But Police Staff Major General Bahaa al-Azzawi said on Thursday that 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 the AFP news agency in Albu Ajil, a village from which Tikrit can be seen across the Tigris river. “Tikrit is sealed off from all sides.”
Police sources told Al Jazeera on Thursday that on the southeastern side of the city, clashes between Iraqi forces and ISIL fighters were continuing near the former presidential palaces of Saddam Hussein – adjacent to the local government compound.
Iraqi troops were shelling Tikrit’s centre as army helicopters targeted ISIL hideouts, the sources said.
‘No way out’
Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of the volunteer Popular Mobilisation units, told reporters on the front lines that there was no way out for the ISIL fighters trapped in Tikrit.
“They have two choices, surrender or death,” said Ameri, whose Badr organisation is one of the largest Iranian-backed Shia 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.
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 ISIL captured the city nine months ago.
Dozens of bodies are being driven down to Baghdad and the Shia holy city of Najaf almost every day, however, and, while government forces have had the upper hand, ISIL has done damage with suicide car bombs, booby traps and snipers.