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Tikrit is ‘huge test’ for Iraq’s fight against Islamic State

Heavy fighting continued in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, as Iraqi forces and militias moved in on the Islamic State group. Meanwhile, 25 Iraqi soldiers were killed in a friendly fire incident involving an aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition against the militants. Gwen Ifill gets an update on both stories from special correspondent Jane Arraf in Iraq.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    In Iraq, there was more heavy fighting in Tikrit today, as Iraqi forces and militias moved in on the Islamic State group. Elsewhere, the Iraqi military reports that several Iraqi soldiers were killed in a friendly-fire incident involving an aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition.

    NewsHour special correspondent Jane Arraf is on the ground in Iraq. I spoke with her a short time ago.

    Jane, thank you for joining us.

    Can we start by talking about the significance of this battle for Tikrit? The government seems to have made some progress towards reentering the city.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Absolutely, Gwen.

    This is a huge test. It's the biggest Sunni city that the forces have tried to take back, and these are government forces, of course, backed by Shia militia. So they're facing a lot of opposition. It's an ISIL stronghold, an I.S. group stronghold, and they have held it, essentially, since they rolled into the country starting last June.

    So it's really going to show whether they're able to take a city like this on the way to Mosul. This is a necessary step to Mosul. And they're facing a lot of resistance. They have been at this for almost 10 days now, still inside only part of the city, and fighting very fiercely with Islamic State fighters who have laid explosives all the way along the roads — Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There have been some concerns the Iraqi forces were not ready for prime time. Has this shown that they are, or are they getting significant support from coalition forces?

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Well, that's the really interesting thing, because this isn't really just one battle against the Islamic State group. It's many different battles.

    And the dynamics in Tikrit are that the U.S. is really not involved. It's Iran at the front of this. It's Iranian-backed militias. And there are twice as many militiamen as there are regular Iraqi army troops. So this really is an indication of how different that kind of fight is.

    Now, here in the north, there have, of course, been Peshmerga, Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, and there are U.S. airstrikes in Anbar, the Western province. But Tikrit really is a show that's run by the Iranian-backed militias, by the Iraqis themselves. And the U.S. has very carefully stayed out of that.

    So the real test here isn't even so much, can they take back the city? Because they are expected to. It's, what happens after? How do they hold the city? And will people be confident that it's safe enough to come back, given that there are concerns about revenge killings and ethnic cleansing as well?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You mentioned Anbar province. There is another complication on that front, a friendly fire incident. What can you tell about us that?

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Well, that one is murky.

    What we know is approximately 25 Iraqi soldiers have been killed when what appears to be their military barracks were hit by an airstrike. Some Iraqi officials have said it was a U.S. airstrike. The U.S. has said it actually did launch an airstrike in Ramadi, but that it hit Islamic State fighting positions, and it says it knows of no friendly fire casualties.

    So that leaves one more option, basically. The only other aircraft operating in the area were Iraqi. The implication is that it might have been Iraqi friendly fire, but that's still being investigated.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So much is still being investigated and the story changes every day.

    Thank you for covering it for us, Jane Arraf in Baghdad.

  • JANE ARRAF:

    Thank you, Gwen.

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