By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and SAMEER N. YACOUB
TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) — The government declared victory in Tikrit on Wednesday over extremists of the Islamic State group, and it warned the militants holding other Iraqi provinces that they would be the next to fall.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi walked triumphantly along a street in Tikrit, carrying an Iraqi flag and surrounded by jubilant forces.
Across the border in Syria, however, Islamic State fighters made their deepest foray yet into the capital of Damascus by infiltrating a Palestinian refugee camp, according to opposition activists and Palestinian officials.
Iraq’s victory over the extremists in Tikrit was seen as a key step toward eventually driving the militants out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the capital of Nineveh province.
Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi announced the victory, saying security forces have “accomplished their mission” in the monthlong offensive to rid Saddam Hussein’s hometown and the broader Salahuddin province of the militant group.
“We have the pleasure, with all our pride, to announce the good news of a magnificent victory,” Obeidi said in a video statement, and he named the other Iraqi provinces still being held by the IS militants.
“Here we come to you, Anbar! Here we come to you, Nineveh, and we say it with full resolution, confidence, and persistence,” he said.
Al-Abadi said that military engineering units still need more time to clear Tikrit of booby traps and looked to the next steps for the city and province.
“God willing, there will be a fund to rebuild areas destroyed by Daesh and the war. Tikrit and Salahuddin areas will be covered by this fund,” al-Abadi said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
The extremists seized Tikrit last summer during its advance out of Syria and across northern and western Iraq.
Iraqi forces, including soldiers, police officers, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes, launched a large-scale operation to recapture Tikrit on March 2. Last week, the U.S. launched airstrikes on the embattled city at the request of the Iraqi government.
Recapturing Tikrit is seen as the biggest win so far for Baghdad’s Shiite-led government. The city is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad on the road connecting the capital to Mosul. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces have a major supply link for any future operation against Mosul.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the victory was compelling evidence that the U.S. strategy against IS was working. He said the Tikrit operation had been stalled for weeks but that coalition airstrikes and advancing local forces apparently caused IS fighters to withdraw.
“What is clear is that over the last five days, this strategy of backing up Iraqi security forces that are multisectarian in nature with coalition airstrikes is a pretty powerful combination,” Earnest said.
Earlier Wednesday, Iraqi security forces fired on snipers and searched homes for remaining militants. Soldiers fanned out from the charred, skeletal remains of the Salahuddin provincial government complex, captured Tuesday.
Militant mortar fire, which had been intense in previous days, fell silent Wednesday, with commanders saying only a few militant snipers remained in the city. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.
The objective, said Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, is now to restore normalcy as quickly as possible.
“After clearing the area from roadside bombs and car bombs, we will reopen police stations to restore normalcy in the city, and we will form committees to supervise the return of people displaced from their homes,” al-Ghabban said. He said the government will help displaced residents return and that a civil defense unit will be combing the city for roadside bombs and car bombs.
“Daesh is completely defeated,” he added, using an Arabic name for the group.
A satellite image of Tikrit, released in February by the U.N., showed at least 536 buildings in the city have been affected by the fighting. Of those, at least 137 were destroyed and 241 were severely damaged. The current offensive also exacerbated previous damage, particularly in the south where clashes have been the most intense.
Parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri urged the government to find the means to resettle residents from damaged Tikrit buildings. He said this “requires effort and support by the central government in order to financially support the people in rebuilding their houses.”
Aziz Jaber, a political science professor at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University, said retaking Tikrit could be seen as the “beginning of the end” for the Islamic State group in Iraq.
“Daesh was very talented in psychological warfare, but not any more after its defeat in Tikrit,” he said. “Now, the morale of the Iraqi forces is high, while that of Daesh is low.”
In the fighting in Syria, where Islamic State militants control large parts of the north, the extremists entered the Palestinian refugee camp in the capital of Damascus from the nearby Hajar Aswad neighborhood.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the IS group took control of large parts of the Yarmouk camp. If they gain full control, they can potentially threaten the heart of Damascus, the seat of President Bashar Asssad’s power.
The Observatory reported heavy clashes in the camp between IS fighters and members of an anti-Assad Palestinian faction called Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.
Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, has been under government siege for nearly two years. U.N. aid workers have been sending food parcels into the camp, where thousands of civilians remain trapped and in desperate need of food and medicine. The camp had seen fighting in the past between government forces and militants who control much of the camp.
Anwar Raja, the spokesman for the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, said IS fighters had been based in the Hajar Aswad neighborhood for months. He said Wednesday’s push into the camp showed coordination between IS and a rival group, the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria.
“The Nusra Front opened the road for them in order to infiltrate the camp and several hours ago they entered Yarmouk,” Raja said by telephone.
Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Vivian Salama in Baghdad, Josh Lederman in Washington, Albert Aji in Damascus and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
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