Iraqi forces battled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in the strategic town of Dawr on Friday as they pressed a major offensive aimed at retaking Tikrit from the militants, officials said.
The town lies along one of the main roads that Iraqi security forces and allied fighters are taking to reach the city of Tikrit, and needs to be captured for the anti-ISIS offensive to move forward.
Salaheddin province Governor Raad al-Juburi said the main street in Dawr had been retaken, while an army major general said periodic clashes were taking place in the town after security forces entered on Friday afternoon.
Ex-president Saddam Hussein was arrested by U.S. forces in 2003 near Dawr, which is also the hometown of Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the most senior member of his regime still at large.
Some 30,000 Iraqi security forces members and allied fighters launched the operation to retake Tikrit on Monday, the largest of its kind since ISIS overran swathes of territory last June.
Retaking Tikrit from ISIS militants, who have had more than eight months to dig in since seizing the city last June, poses a major challenge for the country's forces.
The United Nations said on Thursday that an estimated 28,000 people have fled military operations in and around the city.
Sectarian-fuelled revenge killings targeting Sunni Arabs have been a feature of past operations involving Shiite militias, raising concerns that the same may happen in Tikrit.
Meanwhile Iraqi forces have also cleared ISIS fighters from the town of al-Baghdadi west of Tikrit, near a key base where U.S. Marines are training Iraqi military troops, recapturing the police station and three bridges over the Euphrates, the U.S. military said on Friday.
Iraqi Security Forces and tribal militia from the Anbar region also pushed the ISIS fighters from seven villages northwest of al-Baghdadi on the road to Haditha, the Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement.
Al-Baghdadi is located about 3 miles (5 km) northeast of Ain al-Asad air base, where U.S. Marines are training Iraqi military forces to help them confront ISIS militants who overran part of northwestern Iraq last year.
ISIS militants seized the bridges around al-Baghdadi in September. Fighting for control of al-Baghdadi stepped up in recent weeks, and a top U.S. commander said two weeks ago that Iraqi forces appeared to be on the verge of driving out the militants.
Lieutenant General James Terry, senior U.S. commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, told reporters the Iraqi army’s 7th Division, including one of its commando units, were joining tribal forces to retake the town.
The military’s statement on Friday said coalition air forces had supported the effort to retake al-Baghdadi, targeting ISIS positions in and around the town with 26 air strikes between Feb. 22 and March 6. It also provided surveillance and advice to Iraqi military headquarters.