BAGHDAD, March 6 (Xinhua) — Iraqi security forces and government-backed militias retook control of a town on Friday as they are pushing on in their offensive in Salahudin province to free Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit after driving out the Islamic State (IS) militants, while the extremist IS militants destroyed an ancient Assyrian site near the country’s northern city of Mosul.
The troops and allied Shiite and Sunni militias, covered by Iraqi aircraft, entered in the afternoon the town of Dour, in south of the provincial capital city of Tikrit, some 170 km north of Baghdad, from all directions after heavy bombardment on the central neighborhoods, a security source from Salahudin province told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.
« Most of Daash (IS militant group) foreign fighters have fled the town earlier and only few local fighters remained, » the source said, adding that the troops were still fighting sporadic clashes in small pockets inside the town.
The troops were moving slowly and cautiously inside the town, while the explosive experts were dealing with dozens of roadside bombs and booby-trapped buildings that were left by the IS militants, the source said.
« The security forces and allied militias started their next stage of the offensive, which is to enter the urban areas after they fulfilled the operations of surrounding the militant-held city of Tikrit and other towns, as well as cutting the IS supply routes, » Major General Imad al-Zeheiri told Xinhua.
For his part, Ahmed al-Kraiym, head of Salahudin’s provincial council, told reporters that « the security forces and the militias, known as Hashed Shaabi (or Popular Mobilization) will start Saturday their battles to free the town of Alam and Albu Ajil area, just east of Tikrit, before their main battle to free Tikrit itself. »
Meanwhile, the army units continued their heavy shelling with artillery, mortar rounds and rockets on the IS positions in Tikrit, nearby town of Alam and adjacent Albu Ajil area, as part of their preparations to retake control the remaining areas of the province, according to the provincial security source.
The Iraqi security forces began their operation before Sunday dawn via five paths: two from Mkesheifa and Sur Shnas, south of Tikrit, two others from Udheim and Tuz Khurmato, east of Tikrit, and the last from the Speicher airbase, just north of Tikrit, according to security sources.
Large parts of Salahudin province have been under IS control since June 11, a day after bloody clashes broke out between Iraqi security forces and the IS group, which took control of the country’s northern city of Mosul and later seized swathes of territories in Nineveh and other predominantly Sunni provinces.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities condemned the destruction of an archeological site of ancient Nimrud city, which is located some 30 km southeast of Iraq’s northern city of Mosul.
A statement issued by the ministry said it condemns these criminal acts and calls upon the UN Security Council to rapidly convene for an emergency.
It said the extremist militant group is defying the will of the world and the feelings of humanity by the new reckless crime when it razed the archeological city of Nimrud and appropriated ancient sites dating back to 13 centuries BC.
Also on Friday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a press release denouncing the destruction of Nimrud ancient city, considering the act as a « war crime. »
« I condemn in the strongest possible manner the destruction of the archaeological site of Nimrud site in Iraq, » said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.
« We cannot remain silent. The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime, » she said.
« I appeal also to all cultural institutions, museums, journalists, professors, and scientists to share and explain the importance of this heritage and the Mesopotamian civilization. We must respond to this criminal chaos that destroys culture with more culture, » Bokova added.
Last week, the IS group released a video showing a group of militants armed with sledgehammers and jackhammers smashed large statues and unique artifacts from archeological sites and Nineveh provincial museum.
In the chaos following the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, the Iraqi national museum was also ransacked by looters. An estimated 15,000 priceless antiquities were lost and only about haft of them have been recovered so far.
Chaos and fragile security during the post-invasion years left many historic sites in the hands of looters who carried out random excavations and stole tens of thousands of antiquities, usually causing irreversible damage.
Earlier, the IS extremists destroyed many old temples, shrines, churches and precious manuscripts in the city of Mosul and many other areas.