TIKRIT, Iraq — Iraqi officials insisted for weeks that Islamic State fighters had been all but exterminated in Tikrit, confined to a few pockets in the city center. Yet on Sunday, military officials in the city were reluctant to allow journalists to head back to Baghdad by road — even though the highway skirts Tikrit well to the west.
The supposed safer alternative was a general’s Iraqi Air Force Cessna waiting at the Tikrit Air Base nine miles northwest of downtown. But before takeoff, two mortar shells slammed into a grassy patch between the airfield’s two runways, within 100 yards of the small plane. Iraqi military escorts surmised that the person shooting had to have been within visual range — and probably to the west, although downtown was southeast.
“Daesh are everywhere,” one senior officer said, using the Arab nickname for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
During a two-day visit to Tikrit, a strategic city in Iraq’s central Sunni heartland, it was clear that after four weeks of the government offensive the Islamic State’s fighters are more numerous and still hold much more territory here than officials had previously allowed, even with heavy American airstrikes added in.
According to Iraqi military officials and fighters on the ground in Tikrit, ISIS still dominates or controls about 20 square miles of the city, everything from the edge of Tikrit University in the north, to the far end of the New Ouja neighborhood in the south, a distance as much as eight miles north to south. That encompasses most of the populous parts of the city, which generally lie west of the Tigris River; all of its main downtown and business districts; the government quarter and the former palace of Saddam Hussein. Government forces remain mostly east of the Tigris, an area that is predominantly rural and agricultural, or on the suburban or rural outskirts of the city on the western and southern sides. The city’s population used to be more than a quarter million, but most residents have fled.
The army headquarters for the operation are situated at a campus building not far from the front line with ISIS — though here, front line is a relative term. Eight mortar tubes were set up around the headquarters to provide defense, and they were pointing not just south toward the center of Tikrit, but also to the north and northeast.
Those mortars were all fired relatively frequently Saturday and Sunday, their shots alternating with the ground-shaking blasts of bombs being dropped from time to time by coalition aircraft.
Lt. Gen. Abdul al-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the Tikrit offensive, said that while the Iraqi military’s positions around the city had not changed significantly, special operations forces and elite police units were carrying out reconnaissance in force into the city and had penetrated to within 600 yards of the government complex in the city center.
He said the going had been slow because at first Iraqi forces wanted to leave space for civilians to flee the city, and then wanted to proceed in a way that kept casualties among the military and its allied Shiite militias as low as possible.
Despite weeks of fighting, he insisted that the pro-government forces had sustained few fatalities, and estimated that ISIS had 450 to 750 fighters left in the city, and had lost an equal number killed.
Shiite militias were losing about an average of eight fighters a day killed, according to cemetery workers in Najaf, where most Shiite martyrs are buried. While that was a nationwide estimate, most of them would have been fighting in Salahuddin Province.
But Wafiq al-Hashemi, director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, an independent research organization that often provides advice to the Iraqi government, said his estimates of ISIS fighters still active in Tikrit were in the range of 2,000 to 3,000. He also said that not only did ISIS still dominate the 20-square-mile area between Tikrit University and Ouja, but that the Iraqi military still had not succeeded in taking control of Highway 1 north of Tikrit, between Tikrit and Mosul, where ISIS has its major base in Iraq.
The militants in Tikrit have been able to keep using that supply line to the north even though they are surrounded within the city, using tunnels to evade government lines and keep access to the road.
“The government cannot do it unless the international alliance keeps up these airstrikes,” he said.
According to Gen. Lloyd Austin, who as head of the United States Central Command is in overall charge of the coalition in Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi military has about 4,000 troops under its command in Tikrit — far less than the 30,000 figure Iraqi officials had cited, although that included militia forces as well.
He insisted that the Shiite militias were not involved in the Tikrit battle any longer, after the American military told congressional leaders last week that it had agreed to support Iraqi operations in Tikrit with airstrikes only after being assured that Shiite militias, many of them with Iranian advisers, had been pulled out of the fight.
There was considerable confusion in Tikrit, however, over the new terms of engagement. While some of the militiamen said they would pull out of the fight, many others could be seen on the front lines of it. In addition, many new militia fighters, officially known as the popular mobilization forces, were seen arriving in significant numbers in Tikrit on Saturday and Sunday. However, Iranian advisers who had been working with some of the militias, in particular, have no longer been reported on the battlefields around Tikrit and elsewhere in Salahuddin Province.
“The popular mobilization did not withdraw, they are still here,” General Saadi, who is in overall charge of the Tikrit offensive, said in an interview over the weekend. “Some of them were sent to do different duties inside our area of operation.”
None of them, however, were removed from the battle when the coalition began bombing, the general insisted. “The people who are here with us are still here, they didn’t leave, some were just moved to another place.”
General Saadi said that while no military wants to be dependent on militias and irregular forces, Iraq had no choice. “If we were a complete army I would say no, but we need the popular mobilization forces. The battle requires them to be with us.”
On Sunday, about 60 Shiite fighters arrived at General Saadi’s headquarters from the Shiite heartland around Karbala as part of a militia called Qataba Imam Ali, wearing black uniforms with body armor and carrying a mixture of light and heavy weapons.
Their commander was Lt. Col. Salim Mizher, who said his men were eager to join the fight. But when an Iraqi officer, Brig. Gen. Abbas Khudair, explained that the militiamen were being incorporated into the army and would not operate independently, answering to Iraqi generals, Colonel Mizher objected.
“We answer to Sheikh Maithan and no other person,” he said, naming one of the militia’s religious leaders.
Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Tikrit, and Omar Al-Jawoshy from Baghdad.
A version of this article appears in print on March 31, 2015, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Islamic State’s Grip on City Appears Firmer Than Iraqis Acknowledge.
The New York Times