The Iraqi offensive to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was making "gains," security forces told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
State media and security sources said an ISIL leader for south Tikrit had been killed and that other ISIL officials had retreated through Huweijah and on into the Hamreen mountains, along the border with Iran.
Iraqi forces said that while they were making progress in fighting around the edges of Tikrit, recapturing several towns and villages, they had not yet attempted to enter the city itself.
Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, is the largest population center Iraqi forces have tried to take back since ISIL seized swathes of the country in June.
The Iraqi offensive on Tikrit involves a coalition of government forces, Sunni tribal fighters, and Iran-backed Shia militias.
Iraqi and Iranian media have both reported that General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the covert Quds Force unit in Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, is on the ground in Salahuddin directing the fight against ISIL.
Government forces have battled their way north for months, notching up key victories against ISIL, but Tikrit has been their toughest target yet, with the fighters having resisted them several times. The city is said to have a heavy concentration of ISIL fighters and is laden with explosives.
Commanders voiced hope the operation would be a step towards the recapture of Mosul, the insurgent's most important holding in Iraq, although a U.S. envoy leading an international coalition against ISIL said no timeline should be imposed.
"The army, federal police, Popular Mobilization [volunteer] units, and the sons of Salahuddin's tribes are performing the duties of liberation in the largest operation against Daesh since June," a senior army officer on the ground told AFP, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.
"We are certain of victory ... but the operation is not easy," the officer said.
The operation to retake Tikrit followed a televised speech by Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi on Sunday, in which he offered the insurgents one last chance to lay down their weapons.
Military sources said warplanes were involved, but the Pentagon said they did not include those of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL. It was unclear whether Iranian planes were involved.
With wire services