TIME

Iran Nuke Talks Extended Once Again After Faltering

Iran, world powers inch towards nuclear agreement
Laurent Gillieron—EPA US Secretary of State John Kerry looks at the view of Lake Geneva from his hotel room as the Iran nuclear talks continue, in Lausanne, Switzerland, April 1, 2015.

(LAUSANNE, Switzerland) — Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program headed for double overtime on Wednesday, beset by competing claims and recriminations after differences forced diplomats to abandon their March 31 deadline for the outline of a deal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry postponed his departure from the talks in the Swiss town of Lausanne for a second time and will remain until at least Thursday morning to continue negotiations, the State Department said. On Thursday, the latest round of talks will hit the weeklong mark with diplomats from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany scrambling to reach a framework accord with Iran.

“We continue to make progress but have not reached a political understanding,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said in announcing Kerry’s decision.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said negotiators were still facing a “tough struggle,” indicating the talks were not likely to end anytime soon. “Tonight there will be new proposals, new recommendations. I can’t predict whether that will sufficient to enable an agreement to be reached,” he said.

At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif accused his country’s negotiating partners, particularly the U.S., of having “defective” political will in the talks.

“I’ve always said that an agreement and pressure do not go together, they are mutually exclusive,” he told reporters. “So our friends need to decide whether they want to be with Iran based on respect or whether they want to continue based on pressure.”

The negotiators’ intention is to produce a joint statement outlining general political commitments to resolving concerns about the Iranians’ nuclear program in exchange for relief of economic sanctions against Iran. In addition, they are trying to fashion other documents that would lay out in more detail the steps they must take by June 30 to meet those goals.

But Iran has pushed back not only on the substance of the commitments the sides must make but to the form in which they will make them, demanding that it be a general statement with few specifics. That is politically unpalatable for the Obama administration which must convince a hostile Congress that it has made progress in the talks so lawmakers do not enact new sanctions that could destroy the negotiations.

Zarif said the result of this round of talks “will not be more than a statement.”

A senior Western official pushed back on that, saying that nothing about a statement had been decided and that Iran’s negotiating partners would not accept a document that contained no details. The official was not authorized to speak to the negotiations by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi named differences on sanctions relief as one dispute — but also suggested some softening of Tehran’s long-term insistence that all sanctions on his country be lifted immediately once a final deal takes effect.

He told Iranian TV that economic, financial, oil and bank sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union and others should be done away with as “the first step of the deal.” Alluding to separate U.N. sanctions he said a separate “framework” was needed for them.

Araghchi has spoken of a similar arrangement before. But both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have since demanded full and total sanctions lifting, and the floating of the approach now suggested an Iranian shift.

Araghchi also rejected U.S. demands of strict controls on Iran’s uranium enrichment-related research and development, saying such activities “should continue.”

The U.S. and its negotiating partners want to crimp Iranian efforts to improve the performance of centrifuges that enrich uranium because advancing the technology could let Iran produce material that could be used to arm a nuclear weapon much more quickly than at present.

The additional documents the U.S. wants would allow the sides to make the case that the next round of talks will not simply be a continuation of negotiations that have already been twice extended since an interim agreement between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany was concluded in 2013. President Barack Obama and other leaders, including Iran’s, have said they are not interested in a third extension.

But if the parties agree only to a broad framework that leaves key details unresolved, Obama can expect stiff opposition at home from members of Congress who want to move forward with new, stiffer Iran sanctions. Lawmakers had agreed to hold off on such a measure through March while the parties negotiated. The White House says new sanctions would scuttle further diplomatic efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear work and possibly lead Israel to act on threats to use military force to accomplish that goal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has campaigned tirelessly for months against the emerging agreement, said it would “ensure a bad deal that would endanger Israel, the Middle East and the peace of the world.”

“A better deal would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. A better deal would link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to a change in Iran’s behavior,” he said.

TIME Iran

Iran Nuke Talks Stumble a Day After Missing Deadline

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talks to members of the media while walking through a courtyard at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of talks in Lausanne on April 1, 2015.
Brendan Smialowski—REUTERS Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talks to members of the media while walking through a courtyard at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of talks in Lausanne on April 1, 2015.

For nearly a week, Iran and six powers have been locked in negotiations

(LAUSANNE, Switzerland) — German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says negotiators at the Iran nuclear talks are still facing a “tough struggle,” indicating the talks are not likely to end soon.

At the same time, he’s holding out hope that the sides will be able to negotiate a preliminary accord that will let them embark on a new phase of talks aiming for a final deal by June.

For nearly a week, Iran and six powers have been locked in haggling over what that initial understanding should look like. The talks were extended past the Tuesday deadline in an effort to bridge differences.

Steinmeier said Wednesday that he hopes when the talks end “we won’t just be reporting about closing gaps … but also over agreement about important points.”

TIME Nigeria

Twitter Courtesy Has Been a Factor in Reducing Post-Election Violence in Nigeria

NIGERIA-ELECTIONS-RESULTS
Nichole Sobecki—AFP/Getty Images Nigerians celebrate the victory of main opposition presidential candidate Mohammadu Buhar, in Kaduna on March 31, 2015.

Nigeria's election defied predictions for widespread violence and fraud. A concerted social media campaign may have played a part

For an election considered too close to call as Nigerians went to the polls en mass on Saturday morning, nothing was more surprising than the fact that for the first time in the country’s post-colonial history an opposition challenger succeeded in pushing out a sitting president via the ballot box. That and the fact that for all the dire predictions of doom and violence, the final results were accompanied by cheers and groans, not gloating and gunshots. Some of that just may be attributable to winning candidate Muhammadu Buhari’s remarkable Twitter feed, rife with positive thoughts and cheerful goodwill throughout.

Winning candidate Muhammadu Buhari, who will be sworn in as President on May 29, praised his rival President Goodluck Jonathan for peacefully relinquishing power. “President Jonathan was a worthy opponent and I extend the hand of fellowship to him,” Buhari told a gathering at his campaign headquarters on Wednesday. For his part, Jonathan, a former Vice-President turned two-time President who many had assumed would never willingly give up power, was gracious in his defeat, saying in a statement, “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” He went on to encourage his supporters to stay calm and accept the results, no matter how disappointed. “Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.”

While there was no shortage of rancor through out the campaign period — at one point Jonathan supporters spread the rumor that a long-planned speaking engagement for Buhari, 72, in the United States was in fact an emergency medical consultation for suspected prostate cancer — both candidates repeatedly professed a desire for a peaceful election and a mature, responsible electorate. By and large they got it, with minimal damage from protestors and a relatively low death toll of just a few dozen, compared to the slaughter of the 2011 election, which saw more than 800 die in widespread rioting. For most of the run up to the election, Buhari supporters and campaign activists hinted at dark conspiracies by Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party to rig the vote, prevent Buhari supporters from going to the polls, or manipulate the final count.

But throughout it all Buhari’s Twitter feed focused on the positive, rarely betraying the acrimony splashed across Nigeria’s partisan papers. Buhari came late to Twitter, signing on only on the last day of January with the verified handle @ThisIsBuhari, compared to early adopter Jonathan. Buhari demonstrated few of Jonathan’s grievous faux pas, among them the ill conceived #BringBackJonathan hashtag campaign for re-election, a tasteless imitation of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag slogan to recover the 257 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last year. From earnest shoutouts to female candidates for state governor:

To exhortations for Nigerians to stay calm in the wake of terror attacks:

His final twitter missive to Nigerians, spelled out over 50 successive posts, qualifies as one of the more novel campaign uses of a medium designed to be brief.

Even when U.S and European officials expressed concern that there might be military and government manipulation in the final counting of the votes on Monday, Buhari urged his supporters to stay calm:

Most endearing of all was a tweet not scripted by Buhari himself, but retweeted in honor of his wife:

But after the celebrations come thorny issues such as taking on the Islamist militants Boko Haram. In a speech on Wednesday, Buhari said: “Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will. We should spare no effort until we defeat terrorism.”

TIME Religion

Pope Francis’s Divorce Dilemma

TIME Books

Somebody is going to feel betrayed no matter what he does

Though one probably should be cautious in using such language about a religious leader, Pope Francis seems to have painted himself into a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” corner with regard to a mounting Catholic debate over divorce.

Whether a result of cunning, naiveté, or simply the inescapable dynamics of a trying to change a divided church, Francis has created a situation in which somebody is going to feel betrayed no matter what he does.

In a nutshell, Catholicism teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (hence “no” to gay marriage), permanent (hence “no” to divorce), and must be open to children (hence “no” to birth control). Despite his reputation as a maverick, Francis has made clear that teaching will not change.

Yet there’s long been debate about how to care for believers living beyond the official boundaries, especially those who divorce and remarry outside the Church.

Under church law, such folk should be denied the sacraments of communion and confession. In practice, some priests and bishops over the years have quietly encouraged them to come anyway. It’s particularly tempting when the person isn’t at fault for the breakdown of the first marriage – for instance, a woman whose husband walked out – and who now has children in a second marriage.

There’s no precise estimate worldwide, but according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, some 4.5 million Catholics in the United States are divorced and remarried without an “annulment,” a declaration from a church court that the first marriage was invalid.

During the more relaxed Pope Paul VI era in the 1970s, the Vatican signed off on what’s known as an “internal forum” solution, meaning that a Catholic makes a private decision in conscience to take the sacraments, approved by a priest acting as a confessor. Pope John Paul II in 1981 reasserted the communion ban.

In 1993 a handful of German prelates, including Walter Kasper, then the Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and today a cardinal, announced they would welcome the divorced and remarried to communion anyway. Their stance triggered a Vatican crackdown the next year by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.

That’s where things stood until Francis, who’s sent mixed signals. In February 2013, the pontiff tapped Kasper to re-open a debate among cardinals about inviting the divorced and remarried back to the sacraments in at least some cases, but has also allowed several of his own aides to insist publicly that change is impossible.

Fueling controversy even more, Francis has called two summits of Catholic bishops, called “synods,” on family issues. A synod can’t decide anything; it can merely offer advice to a pope. But it’s a useful x-ray of where the world’s bishops stand.

During the first, held last October, battles lines were drawn for and against the “Kasper proposal” to loosen the rules, and signs are that the clash will be even more intense during round two this October.

In recent weeks, 500 conservative priests in the U.K. published an open letter asking the synod to defend the communion ban, prompting their more moderate boss, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, to tell them to keep their advice out of the papers.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, also a moderate, hinted that the German bishops might go their own way regardless of what the synod decides. His position was decried as “absolutely anti-Catholic” by fellow German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s top doctrinal overseer, and better suited “to the counter of a bar” by another more conservative German, Cardinal Paul Cordes, a former Vatican official close to Pope Benedict.

Staunchly conservative American Cardinal Raymond Burke warned in a recent interview that “confusion is spreading in an alarming way.” In a speech to German bishops, Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch actually compared calls to water down church teaching to the way some German Christians went along with Hitler.

Meanwhile, the influential Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, a Catholic rock star across Asia, came out in favor of making the rules more flexible. “Every situation for those who are divorced and remarried is quite unique,” Tagle said in a speech in the U.K. in mid-March. “We cannot give one formula for all.”

Though it’s common for Catholics at the grassroots to slug it out like this, cardinals doing so in full public view is unusual. It reflects a sense that the stakes are high, for a couple of reasons.

For one, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI took a clear stand on the issue. If Francis were to roll it back, it could send a signal that all papal edicts are only temporary, undercutting the ancient dictum that “Rome has spoken, the case is closed.”

For another, the dust-up over divorce and remarriage often functions as a proxy for more contentious matters, such as women priests or birth control. If a pope is willing to break with the past here, some hope and others fear, perhaps change will come elsewhere.

Francis is a pope of surprises, making it difficult to predict what he’ll decide. It’s far easier to forecast that whatever happens, a sizeable chunk of the Catholic Church is going to be deeply disenchanted.

John L. Allen Jr., is the author of THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church, published by Time Inc. Books.

TIME Egypt

See Egypt’s Pyramids From Space

The pyramids of Giza in Egypt, seen from space.
Samantha Cristoforetti—European Space Agency The pyramids of Giza in Egypt, (center left) seen from space.

Look for the triangular shadows

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti took a photo of the famous pyramids of Giza in Egypt from her current home on the International Space Station. Follow her on Twitter @AstroSamantha.

TIME Middle East

ISIS Floats Idea of Truce With West After Military Setbacks

A member of the Iraqi security forces runs to plant the national flag as they surround Tikrit during clashes to regain the city from Islamic State militants, 80 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq, March 30, 2015.
Khalid Mohammed—AP A member of the Iraqi security forces runs to plant the national flag as they surround Tikrit during clashes to regain the city from Islamic State militants, 80 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq, March 30, 2015.

The group used its English-language magazine and its English hostage to raise the issue

After a series of battlefield setbacks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) this week raised the prospect of an eventual truce with Western states that have joined the struggle to defeat it.

The idea emerged in Tuesday’s latest edition of Dabiq, the militants’ glossy English-language online magazine, in an article purportedly written by John Cantlie, a British war photographer the group has held hostage since November 2012.

ISIS has previously disseminated videos of Cantlie from various locations that the group controls in Syria and Iraq in which he was seen countering Western accounts of life under its rule.

The author of the Dabiq article, titled “Paradigm Shift”, claims to detect a change in the Western view of ISIS from seeing it as a terrorist organization to accepting it is a country in its own right.

“Although the West might never admit such a thing, there are Western politicians who are beginning to realize this fact,” it reads, “and thus, little by little, we’re seeing a changing of vernacular, a paradigm shift in how those leaders talk about the State, because if it is a country – whether recognized by anyone or not (and the Islamic State doesn’t care either way) – then that changes things, dramatically.”

The article quotes comments from a number of current and retired U.S. officials to back its claim. It refers, for example, to retired U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cowan telling Fox News in October 2014: “ISIS will have taken more towns, more territory, consolidated more gains and really become, unfortunately, the kind of country we don’t want to see over there.”

Neither this or other quoted comments are very recent, raising the question of why the claim of a “paradigm shift” or a possible truce has been raised now. If not an oblique signal of the group’s present relative weakness, it might be an effort to drive a wedge between those who support and oppose further Western involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign.

The article insists Western bombing raids in support of badly-trained local forces will not work. And then comes the truce pitch: “At some stage, you’re going to have to face the Islamic State as a country, and even consider a truce.”

There is no way of establishing independently whether the article was written by Cantlie. A former hostage of ISIS, journalist Javier Espinosa, has said that Cantlie tried to escape twice with fellow photojournalist James Foley, who was beheaded by the militants last year. The attempts earned them weeks of harsh punishment.

In any event, the truce idea — floated in IS’s main English-language propaganda vehicle — must have the group’s approval.

The idea is raised in familiar triumphalist tones: “Is a truce even realistic?” the article asks. “Right now, it’s too early. The scene is just being set for a big operation against the Islamic State to be executed by Iranian militias (AKA the Iraqi army) backed by the US.

“But when that fails because Shiite militiamen are afraid of being burnt alive, when special forces operations skyrocket in an effort to make up for what the Iraqi army cannot achieve, and when the mujahedin start beheading Western troops, then every option is going to be on the table, and fast. A truce will be one of those options.” It insists that at some stage a truce will be the only option open to America and the West and “the sensible one”.

The article comes with an editor’s note that a halt of war between Muslims and the kuffar [infidels] can never be permanent, “as war against the kuffar is the default obligation upon the Muslims.” The note also demonstrates that as fundamentalist as ISIS claim to be, they are also permitted to be pragmatic as the point of the truce is to allow them to better achieve their strategic aims in future.

The confident predictions on behalf of ISIS are at odds with the current situation on the ground, where the militants have been mostly expelled from the Iraqi city of Tikrit in the face of an Iraqi army and militia advance. Elsewhere in Iraq, local forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga, have pushed back the ISIS front line with the support of U.S. and other allied air strikes.

In Syria, ISIS militants were ousted from the Kurdish border town of Kobane after a lengthy siege last year. The Dabiq article even tries to portray that defeat as a victory by suggesting that the fighting left the town totally destroyed.

The “truce” article appears in the eighth edition of Dabiq, a glossily illustrated web magazine, designed to appeal to would-be recruits in the English-speaking world. Dabiq 8 continues a familiar pattern of glorifying ISIS’s violent acts and predicting the inevitability of its victory.

The current edition lauds the recruitment of child soldiers — the Lion Cubs of the Khalifah — and their role in the murder of hostages. It also praises the killers of more than 20 people, including foreign tourists, at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis on 18 March. “The operation succeeded in bringing anguish to a number of the nations involved in the crusader coalition (Italy, France, Britain, Japan, Poland, Australia, Spain, and Belgium), after some of their own citizens became prey for the soldiers of the Islamic State,” one article boasts.

TIME Environment

Indian Army to Climb Everest to Remove Thousands of Pounds of Trash

This picture taken on May 23, 2010 shows
Namgyal Sherpa—AFP/Getty Images This picture taken on May 23, 2010 shows a Nepalese sherpa collecting garbage, left by climbers, at an altitude of 8,000 meters during the Everest clean-up expedition at Mount Everest.

"Sadly, Mount Everest is now also called the world's highest junkyard"

Mountaineers from the Indian Army will scale Mount Everest later this month to clean up trash left behind by past climbers.

The 34 members of the climbing team plan to collect and carry down more than 8,800 lbs. (4,000 kg) of non-biodegradable garbage and equipment that has been dumped by thousands of people who have made the trip over the years, India Today reports.

“Sadly, Mount Everest is now also called the world’s highest junkyard,” said major Ranveer Singh Jamval, the leader of the climb.

“Our aim is to carry forward our prime minister’s dream of cleanliness everywhere,” Jamval added of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has made a push to clear the country’s roads and public places of trash.

The trip falls on the 50th anniversary of the successful Everest climb by Indian Army mountaineers.

[India Today]

 

TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s New President Says Time for Country to ‘Heal Wounds’

NIGERIA-VOTE-BUHARI
AFP/Getty Images Nigeria's new president-elect Muhammadu Buhari hailed polls that lead to the first democratic change of power in Africa's most populous nation as "historic" hours after he secured a decisive victory, photo taken April 1, 2015.

"We have voted for a president and a government that will serve and govern but never rule over you"

(ABUJA, Nigeria) — Former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari said Wednesday it was time “to heal wounds,” a day after Nigeria’s president conceded defeat in a bitterly fought election.

Calling for conciliation across the political divide, Buhari said Nigerians have put a one-party state behind them and embraced democracy.

“We have voted for a president and a government that will serve and govern but never rule over you,” he said. “Change has come. A new day and a new Nigeria are open to us . The victory is yours.”

Buhari, 72, said Nigerians showed they can bring about peaceful change through the ballot box. When Buhari is sworn in on May 29 it will be the first time in Nigeria’s history that an opposition party has democratically taken control of the country from the ruling party — considered a sign of the West African nation’s maturing young democracy. President Goodluck Jonathan’s party has governed since decades of military dictatorship ended in 1999.

Jonathan conceded with grace late Tuesday, saying “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” He urged aggrieved colleagues in his People’s Democratic Party to turn to the courts. “Today, the PDP should be celebrating rather than mourning. We have established a legacy of democratic freedom, transparency, economic growth and free and fair elections.”

Buhari was the sole candidate of a coalition of the major political parties that formed two years ago and transformed Nigeria’s political landscape by offering the first real challenge to the governing party that has been in power since 1999 in Africa’s richest and most populous

Results from Saturday’s election show Buhari winning votes across religious, tribal lines and geopolitical lines.

Because of decades of military rule — Buhari himself was made military ruler of Nigeria after a Dec. 31, 1983 coup — this is only the eighth election in Nigeria’s history and the fifth since democracy was restored in 1999.

“You voted for change and now change has come,” said Buhari, who describes himself as a convert to democracy. “Your vote affirms that you believe Nigeria’s future can be better than what it is today.” He was addressing supporters at his party secretariat in Abuja, the capital, around 6 a.m.

Buhari’s victory was fueled by popular anger over an Islamic insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.

Outside Buhari’s party headquarters in Abuja overnight, women chanted songs and used grass brooms to elaborately sweep the way ahead of arriving dignitaries in flamboyant robes. The traditional broom is the sign of Buhari’s campaign pledge to sweep out the corruption endemic in Nigeria.

“This election is not about Buhari or Jonathan, it’s about Nigeria, it’s about freedom, it’s about change, it’s about unity,” Aisha Birma said, adding that Jonathan lost because he failed to provide security for Nigerians.

“What we have gone through, the Boko Haram insurgency for the past six years in Borno. … You, Jonathan, were responsible for our lives and property. When you don’t protect our lives and property, you can’t talk about infrastructure, education … Security is paramount,” she said.

Jonathan’s concession has defused tensions and fears of post-election violence. Some 1,000 people died and 65,000 were made homeless in riots in the Muslim north after Buhari lost to Jonathan in 2011.

 

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis Says St. John Paul II Was Shining Example of ‘Suffering With Joy’

The Pope spoke on the eve of the 10th anniversary of John Paul's death

Pope Francis said St. John Paul II showed sick people how to “carry the cross of suffering with joy” on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Polish-born pope’s death.

Pope Francis spoke to tourists and pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, the AP reports. John Paul died on April 2, 2005, at age 84, in the Apostolic Palace next to the square where Pope Francis spoke. John Paul became the Catholic Church’s first non-Italian pope since the 15th century when he was elected in 1978. He served until 2005, the second longest pontificate in history.

“We remember him as a great Witness of the suffering Christ, dead and risen,” Francis said.

[AP]

 

TIME conflict

Iraq Declares Victory Over ISIS in Tikrit

IRAQ-CONFLICT-IS
Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units walk past murals depicting the emblem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria group outside one of the presidential palaces in Tikrit, on April 1, 2015.

The U.S. launched airstrikes last week in support of Iraqi ground forces

(TIKRIT, Iraq) — Iraq declared a “magnificent victory” Wednesday over the Islamic State group in Tikrit, a key step in driving the militants out of their biggest strongholds.

Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi made the pronouncement, saying security forces have “accomplished their mission” in the monthlong offensive to rid Saddam Hussein’s hometown and the broader Salahuddin province of the militant group.

“We have the pleasure, with all our pride, to announce the good news of a magnificent victory,” Obeidi said in a video statement. “Here we come to you, Anbar! Here we come to you, Nineveh, and we say it with full resolution, confidence, and persistence,” naming other provinces under the sway of the extremists.

Extremists from the Islamic State group seized Tikrit last summer during its advance across northern and western Iraq. The battle for Tikrit is seen as a key step toward eventually driving the militants out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the provincial capital of Nineveh.

Iraqi forces, including soldiers, police officers, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes, launched a large-scale operation to recapture Tikrit on March 2. Last week, the United States launched airstrikes on the embattled city at the request of the Iraqi government.

Recapturing Tikrit would be the biggest win so far for Baghdad’s Shiite-led government. The city is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad and lies on the road connecting the capital to Mosul. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces have a major supply link for any future operation against Mosul.

Earlier Wednesday, Iraqi security forces fired on snipers and searched homes for remaining militants. Soldiers fanned out in circles from the charred skeletal remains of the Salahuddin provincial government complex, captured the day before.

Militant mortar fire, which had been intense over previous days, fell silent Wednesday, with commanders saying only a few militant snipers remained in the city. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.

The objective, Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban said Wednesday, is now to restore normalcy as quickly as possible.

“After clearing the area from roadside bombs and car bombs, we will reopen police stations to restore normalcy in the city, and we will form committees to supervise the return of people displaced from their homes,” al-Ghabban said. He said the government will help displaced residents return and that a civil defense unit will be combing the city for roadside bombs and car bombs.

“Daesh is completely defeated,” he added, using an Arabic name for the group.

During a visit to Tikrit, Iraqi Prime Minsiter Haider al-Abadi said that military engineering units still need more time to clear the city from booby traps. He also waved an Iraqi flag in photos posted on his social media accounts.

“God’s willing, there will be a fund to rebuild areas destroyed by Daesh and the war. Tikrit and Salahuddin areas will be covered by this fund,” al-Abadi said.

A satellite image of Tikrit, released in February by the United Nations, showed at least 536 buildings in the city have been affected by the fighting. Of those, at least 137 were completely destroyed and 241 were severely damaged. The current offensive also exacerbated previous damage, particularly in the south where clashes have been the most intense in recent days.

Iraq’s parliament speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, called on the government to find the means to resettle residents from damaged Tikrit buildings. He said this “requires effort and support by the central government in order to financially support the people in rebuilding their houses.”

Meanwhile, the U.N. mission to Iraq said Wednesday that violence claimed the lives of at least 997 people in March, a slight drop from the February death toll.

UNAMI said in a statement that among them were 729 civilians while the rest were security forces. It said at least 2,172 people were wounded, including 1,785 civilians.

The new U.N. envoy to Iraq, Jan Kubis, said he is shocked to see that Iraqis continue to “bear the brunt” of the ongoing violence in the country.

Kubis also said Wednesday that the offensive in Tikrit is “a victory for all the Iraqi people,” and that the U.N. was ready to assist the provincial and national authorities.

___

Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com