Iraqi troops and allied Shi’ite militias are locked in a major offensive against Islamist extremists in Tikrit, with neither side gaining ground.
On Sunday, the two sides exchanged sniper and mortar fire in a second week of fighting amid reports the Islamists have obtained vast quantities of chlorine for possible use as a chemical weapon, Reuters reported Monday.
A military official returned from the front in Tikrit said no major advances were made by either side nearly two weeks into an operation to win back Tikrit from Islamist control since June.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish authorities said they have proof the militants occupying large parts of the country’s north and west used chlorine against Kurdish peshmerga fighters in January in a car bombing attempt west of the city of Mosul.
Baghdad has not issued a statement on the semi-autonomous Kurdish region’s announcement. An official reached by Reuters on Sunday declined to comment.
But the mayor of a town on the northern edge of Tikrit told Reuters on Sunday that storage containers filled with chlorine were found by troops and mainly Shi’ite militiamen when they entered al-Alam last week, the day before they fought their way into Tikrit.
“We found a number of storage units containing chlorine that we think were seized by Daesh from water purification stations in different parts of Tikrit,” Laith al-Jubouri said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
On Tuesday, when Iraqi forces and allied mainly-Shi’ite militias pushed the Islamist fighters out of the town, a Reuters photographer was present when Iraqi police instructed journalists to stand back and hold their breath as they detonated a roadside bomb they suspected contained chlorine.
When they detonated the bomb, a yellowish plume burst into the air, and as bystanders coughed, officials shouted “be careful, it’s chlorine!”, the Reuters photographer said.
The military campaign to retake Tikrit has been stalled since Friday when security officials said Iraqi forces and their militia allies would wait for reinforcements before moving forward.
Two days later, back-up had not yet arrived, and officials continued to stress the challenges they faced in flushing out militants in street-by-street battles and defusing bombs and booby traps they laid while retreating from parts of the city.
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