The road to Tikrit

The road to Tikrit


Shi'ite fighters launch a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of al-Alam in northern Iraq.

Reuters photographer Thaier Al-Sudani documented Iraqi security forces and mainly Shi'ite militia as their drove Islamic State insurgents out of the town.

. TIKRIT, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Shi'ite fighters walk as smoke rises from an explosives-laden military vehicle driven by an Islamic State suicide bomber which exploded during an attack on the southern edge of Tikrit.

After taking al-Alam on Tuesday, Iraqi troops continued their way towards Tikrit. They pushed their way into the city famous as Saddam Hussein's home on Wednesday in their biggest offensive yet against the ultra-radical militants.

Islamic State fighters had stormed into the city last June during a lightning offensive that was halted just outside Baghdad. They have since used the complex of palaces built in under Saddam, the executed former president, as their headquarters.

. AL-ALAM, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Iraqi officers inspects a map on the outskirts of al-Alam.

Using guerrilla warfare tactics, the militants have turned the city into a labyrinth of home-made bombs, booby-trapped buildings and snipers.

They still hold around half of the city, and the offensive to completely retake Tikrit appeared to stall on Friday.

. AL-ALAM, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Member of Iraqi security forces run as one holds an Islamist State flag that they pulled down in al-Alam.

Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Shi'ite paramilitary Badr Organization, said the outcome of the battle for Tikrit was in no doubt, but Iraqi forces needed time.

"We are not in a hurry, but we have a plan and we are following it," Amiri told Iraqi state television from the Tikrit frontline. "Even if the battle drags on for two, three or four days that is okay. We will celebrate the liberation of Tikrit from the enemy.”

. SALAHUDDIN, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of the Iraqi security forces holds his weapon in Al Hadidiya, south of Tikrit.

More than 20,000 Iraqi troops and Shi'ite militias, supported by local Sunni tribes, are taking part in the offensive, advancing from the east and along the banks of the Tigris.

A victory in Tikrit would give Iraqi forces momentum for the next stage of the campaign to retake Mosul, the largest city under control of Islamic State, which now rules a self-proclaimed caliphate in Sunni regions in Syria and Iraq.

. AL-ALAM, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Shi'ite fighters ride an armoured vehicle in al-Alam.

Any assault on Mosul is likely to be a far more complex undertaking. The northern city is larger, further away from core government-held territory and still densely populated, unlike Tikrit, most of whose residents fled long before the operation began.

The militants still hold a vast area straddling the Syrian border where they are likely to regroup, and Iraqi forces have previously struggled to hold ground they have retaken from the extremist group.

"Most of the areas we were in didn’t have residents, so after the battle they would resemble ghost towns."
Thaier Al-Sudani, Reuters Photographer

It was me and a few other Iraqi journalists working for local outlets. We went to the frontlines in coordination with the Iraqi government forces and supporting militias. As soon as we got to Camp Ashraf we were taken to one of the mosques and told we would be staying here. The fighters gave us blankets, water and eggs. We would eat with the fighters when we were on the road.

The press officer would come in the morning and take us to the frontline in a convoy. I had two cameras on me; a Canon 6D with a 16-35 lens and a Mark 4 with a 70/200 lens. I filed by either going back to a safe place away from the frontlines or, when it was very important to get the pictures out there as soon as possible, using a satellite phone to transmit and car batteries to power my equipment.

Whenever an area was won from Islamic State, the fighters would chant and pray and show victory signs. Most of the areas we were in didn’t have residents, so after the battle they would resemble ghost towns; nothing but burnt cars and charred bodies of Islamic State fighters. Al-Alam was an exception as it had some residents who chanted for the government forces after their victory.

The most touching photo I took was that of a woman hugging her brother whilst crying tears of joy and happiness. She had been living under Islamic State rule for six months and hadn’t seen her brother since IS took over. She was finally reunited with him when he got to the town as a fighter, helping to free it from Islamic State. It was a very emotional moment.

. AL-ALAM, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani