Iraqi troops retake Tikrit from Islamic State
Tikrit is the focus of a counter-offensive against IS by more than 20,000 troops and Shi'ite militias.
AL-ALAM - Iraqi troops and militias drove Islamic State insurgents out of the town of al-Alam on Tuesday, clearing a final hurdle before a planned assault on Saddam Hussein's home city of Tikrit in their biggest offensive yet against the ultra-radical group.
The power base of executed former president Saddam's clan, Tikrit is the focus of a counter-offensive against Islamic State by more than 20,000 troops and Shi'ite Muslim militias known as Hashid Shaabi, backed by local Sunni Muslim tribes.
If Iraq's Shi'ite-led government is able to retake Tikrit it would be the first city clawed back from the Sunni insurgents and would give it momentum in the next, pivotal stage of the campaign - to recapture Mosul, the largest city in the north.
A Reuters photographer saw dozens of families, who earlier fled al-Alam to escape Islamic State rule, return to the town, celebrating and slaughtering sheep for the victorious forces.
"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 local mayor Laith al-Jubouri.
"We rejoice in this victory and we want al-Alam to be the launchpad for the liberation of Tikrit and Mosul," he told Reuters by telephone.
Mosul in the far north is the largest city held by the ultra-radical Islamic State, who now rule a self-declared cross-border caliphate in Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq.
But the ultra-radical group over the past few months has gradually lost ground in Iraq to the army, Shi'ite militias and Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by air strikes carried out by a US - led coalition of mainly Western and allied Arab states.
The United States says Baghdad did not seek aerial backup from the coalition in the Tikrit campaign. Instead, support on the ground has come from neighbouring Iran, Washington's longtime regional rival, which backs the Shi'ite militias and has sent an elite Revolutionary Guard commander to oversee part of the battle.