TIME Middle East

Gaza Man Tricked Into Selling Banksy Mural for $175

Mideast Palestinians Banksy
Adel Hana—AP A metal door that depicted a Greek goddess, presumably painted by British street graffiti artist Banksy, was standing on the rubble of a destroyed building damaged in last summer's Israel-Hamas war, east of Jebaliya, March 31, 2015.

The painting is likely to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars

A Gazan man says he was tricked into selling a valuable artwork by British artist Banksy to a local man for $175.

Banksy’s artworks have sold for up to $600,000 and Rabie Darduna claims he is a victim of fraud.

Banksy secretly visited the Gaza Strip in February for an undercover documentary depicting the lives of Palestinians. He left behind four murals, including one drawn on the only remaining door of Darduna’s home in northern Gaza, which was among the thousands destroyed in last summer’s conflict with Israel. The painting depicts the Greek goddess Niobe weeping (In ancient mythology, Niobe is typically portrayed as a bereaved mother, weeping for the loss of her 14 children).

#Banksy #Gaza

A photo posted by Banksy (@banksy.co.uk) on

Darduna told the BBC that the buyer tricked him into selling the piece by pretending to work for Banksy. “It’s a matter of fraud,” said Darduna, adding that his family was extremely upset over the loss of the piece.

The buyer said his purchase of the painting for less than $175 was legal, despite the fact that Banksy’s artworks can sell for up to $600,000. The street artist’s representative has reportedly contacted the family to say Banksy believes the mural ought to be returned.

Watch Banksy’s mock-travel advert for Gaza below.

[BBC]

TIME Iran

Iran Nuclear Talks Resume After Missing Deadline

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.

Asked how high the chances of success were, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: "I cannot say"

(LAUSANNE, Switzerland) — Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program resumed here Wednesday but were almost immediately beset by competing claims, just hours after diplomats abandoned a March 31 deadline to reach the outline of a deal and agreeing to press on. And as the latest round hit the week mark, three of the six foreign ministers involved left the talks with prospects for agreement remaining uncertain.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister told reporters that the lead negotiators would release a joint statement by the end of the day declaring that progress had been made but containing no specifics. A senior western official quickly pushed back, 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.

Those comments came shortly after the end of the first post-deadline meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his British and German counterparts and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in the Swiss town of Lausanne. They and their teams were continuing a marathon effort to bridge still significant gaps and hammer out a framework accord that would serve as the basis for a final agreement by the end of June.

Eager to avoid a collapse in the discussions, the United States and others claimed late Tuesday that enough progress had been made to warrant an extension after six days of intense bartering. But the foreign ministers of China, France and Russia all departed Lausanne overnight, although the significance of their absence was not clear.

After the talks last broke in the early hours of Wednesday, Zarif said solutions to many of the problems had been found and that documents attesting to that would soon be drafted. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said before leaving that the negotiators had reached agreement in principle on all key issues, and in the coming hours it will be put on paper.

But other officials were more skeptical.

Asked how high the chances of success were, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “I cannot say.” And British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Iran might still not be ready to accept what is on the table.

“I’m optimistic that we will make further progress this morning but it does mean the Iranians being willing to meet us where there are still issues to deal with,” Hammond told British reporters. “Fingers crossed and we’ll hope to get there during the course of the day.”

Although the Chinese, French and Russian ministers left their deputies in charge, Kerry postponed his planned Tuesday departure to stay in Lausanne, and an Iranian negotiator said his team would stay “as long as necessary” to clear the remaining hurdles.

Officials say their intention is to produce a joint statement outlining general political commitments to resolving concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, and their intention to begin a new phase of negotiations to get to that point. 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.

The additional documents 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 November 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.

And despite the progress that diplomats said merited the extension of talks into Wednesday, officials said the differences notably included issues over uranium enrichment, the status of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles, limits on Iran’s nuclear research and development, and the timing and scope of sanctions relief.

The U.S. and its negotiating partners are demanding curbs on Iranian nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons, and they say any agreement must extend the time Tehran would need to produce a weapon from the present several months to at least a year. The Iranians deny such military intentions, but they are negotiating with the aim that a deal will end sanctions on their economy.

 

TIME Tunisia

A Militant Group With Ties to ISIS Says It Orchestrated the Tunisia Museum Attack

Tunisia Museum Attack
Ezer Mnasri —Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Museum-attack hostages are seen after Tunisian Security forces start an operation as gunmen reportedly took hostages at the Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 18, 2015.

The Jund al-Khilafah, or Soldiers of the Caliphate, threatens to carry out further atrocities

A terrorist group reportedly affiliated with ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack on a museum in Tunisia on March 18 that killed 22 people, mainly foreign tourists.

A purported announcement by the group — Jund al-Khilafah, or Soldiers of the Caliphate — was posted on YouTube on Monday as a five-minute audio recording, the New York Times said.

The recording, which was taken down by the site on Tuesday, featured an image of a black banner and the voice of man warning that the attack would not be the last.

“We give you the glad tidings that we are soldiers of the Islamic State in your land — Jund al-Khilafah, soldiers of the Caliph Abu Bakr, may Allah preserve him,” a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group quotes the speaker as saying in Arabic. The speaker is apparently referring to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“Surely, the security of Tunisia will see horror, and surely you will see assassinations and explosions,” he adds. “Two men from among our soldiers immersed and acted against you and your citizens. So what if we send dozens and dozens?”

The recording also contains direct threats to several Tunisian political leaders, including the country’s President Beji Caid Essebsi, Prime Minister Habib Essid, the Defense and Interior Ministers, and members of the army and the national guard.

Essid, meanwhile, announced Sunday that a leading suspect in the attack had been killed in an antiterrorism operation on the border with Algeria.

[NYT]

TIME Philippines

Philippines on High Alert as Supertyphoon Approaches From the East

The storm is currently a Category 5 — the highest possible level — although its intensity may reduce once it reaches land

The Philippines on Wednesday warned its citizens and visiting tourists to be prepared for a high-intensity supertyphoon that looks set to hit within the next three days, with troops placed on standby and supplies of food and medicines readied as a precaution.

The typhoon, christened Maysak, is currently hovering over the Pacific Ocean with winds up to 155 m.p.h., Reuters reported. The Category 5 storm, the highest possible rating, is expected to make landfall on the Southeast Asian country’s east coast.

On Wednesday, the Micronesian state of Chuuk declared a state of emergency after Maysak reportedly claimed at least five lives and caused extensive damage as it tore across the central Pacific.

Experts do anticipate that Maysak will reduce in intensity to around Category 2 once it hits the Philippines, though, with British agency Tropical Storm Risk expecting winds to reduce to 110 m.p.h.

“But this will still be typhoon intensity so it will bring strong winds when it makes landfall on the eastern coast,” Esperanza Cayanan, an officer at the Philippines’ weather bureau, said in a televised briefing.

Although the typhoon could damage crops in the country’s central and northern regions, the damage is likely to be minimal thanks to the conclusion of a major rice harvest in February.

The biggest challenge for authorities will be ensuring the safety of Filipinos and foreigners celebrating the long Easter weekend, the national disaster agency’s executive director Alexander Pama explained.

“Because of our holiday mode, some of us may not give proper attention to the warnings,” Pama said.

[Reuters]

TIME Aviation

Airline Executives Visit Alpine Crash Site Where 150 Died

In this March 26, 2015 file photo, rescue workers work at site of the Germanwings crash site near Seyne-les-Alpes, France.
Laurent Cipriani—AP Rescue workers at the site of the Germanwings crash site near Seyne-les-Alpes, France, on March 26, 2015

The heads of Lufthansa are taking a look at the crash site

(SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France) — The heads of Lufthansa and its low-cost airline Germanwings are visiting the site of the crash that killed 150 people amid mounting questions about the co-pilot and how much his employers knew about his mental health.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr and Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann touched down Wednesday by helicopter in Seyne-les-Alpes, near the ravine where the A320 jet shattered into thousands of pieces March 24.

Investigators believe co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed the plane, and are trying to determine why.

Lufthansa said Tuesday that it knew he had suffered from an episode of “severe depression” before he finished his flight training at the German airline, but that he has passed all his medical checks since.

German prosecutors say Lubitz’s medical records from before he received his pilot’s license referred to “suicidal tendencies,” but visits to doctors since then showed no record of any suicidal tendencies or aggression against others.

The revelations intensify questions about how much Lufthansa and its insurers will pay in damages for the passengers who died — and about how thoroughly the aviation industry and government regulators screen pilots for psychological problems.

At the crash site Wednesday, authorities said they have finished collecting human remains from the site.

Investigators “will continue looking for bodies, but at the crash site there are no longer any visible remains,” said Lt. Col. Jean-Marc Menichini.

Lt. Luc Poussel said all that’s left are “belongings and pieces of metal.”

Officials at France’s national criminal laboratory near Paris say it will take a few months for the painstaking identification process to be complete and for the remains to be returned to the families.

TIME Middle East

Palestinians Want Leverage on Israel in International Court

Netherlands International Court Palestinians
Mike Corder—AP Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki holds up a copy of the International Criminal Court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, after a ceremony welcoming the Palestinians as the court's newest member in The Hague, Netherlands, April 1, 2015.

The Palestinians became the 123rd member of the International Criminal Court on Wednesday

(RAMALLAH) — The Palestinians formally joined the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, as part of a broader effort to put international pressure on Israel and exact a higher price for its occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state.

Beyond seeking war crimes charges against Israel at the court, the Palestinians want the U.N. Security Council to set a deadline for an Israeli troop withdrawal and hope for new momentum of a Palestinian-led international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The atmosphere seems ripe for international intervention after recently re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu startled the world with a pledge to voters, since withdrawn, that he would not allow a Palestinian state to be established.

But a legal and diplomatic showdown isn’t inevitable as aides say Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t interested in an all-out confrontation with Israel. War crimes charges against Israel could be years away and Washington likely will soften any Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood.

Here is a look at what’s expected:

THE COURT
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki was meeting with court officials Wednesday, but it’s largely ceremonial.

Attempting to lower expectations among Palestinians of speedy court action, Malki told the Voice of Palestine radio Wednesday: “I don’t want to disappoint our people, but the ICC procedures are slow and long and might face lots of obstacles and challenges and might take years.”

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda already launched a preliminary review to determine if there are grounds for an investigation of possible war crimes in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands captured by Israel in 1967 and recognized by the U.N. General Assembly in 2012 as the “state of Palestine.”

A senior Palestinian official said the Palestinians will wait for the outcome of that review — which can take months or years — before considering further action. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Palestinian strategy.

Earlier this year, the Palestinians accepted the court’s jurisdiction dating back to June 2014, to ensure that last summer’s Gaza war between Israel and the militant group Hamas will be included in any review.

The Palestinians suffered heavy civilian casualties in the war, prompting allegations by some rights groups that Israel committed war crimes. Hamas, which rules Gaza, is also exposed to war crimes charges because it fired rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian areas.

Israel’s settlement construction, deemed illegal by much of the world, is also bound to be examined by the prosecutor. Since 1967, Israel has moved more than 550,000 of its civilians to occupied lands.

Palestine’s court membership could help shift focus to settlements as a legal and not just a political issue, said Alex Whiting, a former official in the international prosecutor’s office.

Israel and Palestine also will have to show that they are looking into possible war crimes on their own — a shield against ICC involvement if deemed credible. Israel says it’s investigating alleged violations by its troops in Gaza. Hamas is not investigating its actions, claiming rocket attacks were self-defense.

Israel vehemently opposes Palestinians joining the court. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said unilateral Palestinian moves are “absolutely counterproductive” and will make it harder to resume negotiations.

THE U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL

France is working on a Security Council resolution that would set the parameters for a Palestinian statehood deal. The draft would define the pre-1967 frontier as a reference point for border talks, designate Jerusalem as a capital of two states and call for a fair solution for Palestinian refugees.

Last year, the council rejected a Palestinian resolution demanding an end to Israeli occupation within three years. The U.S. opposed that draft, saying Palestinian statehood can only be achieved through negotiations, but didn’t have to use its veto.

French diplomats now say they are working on a new draft with their allies, including the U.S., to ensure broad support. A resolution could be introduced later this month.

The U.S. said after Netanyahu’s comments on Palestinian statehood that it would re-evaluate its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a possible sign that Washington would no longer shield Israel in the Security Council.

Israel opposes imposed parameters for negotiations, but Palestinians are also skeptical.

They want internationally backed ground rules, after Netanyahu rejected the pre-1967 lines as a starting point. However, they also fear they’ll get a resolution that lacks enforceable deadlines and instead introduces the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas opposes such wording as a threat to the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.

BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT AND SANCTIONS

Organizers said they expect Netanyahu’s re-election will galvanize support for the 10-year-old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

BDS activists promote different objectives, with some focusing on a boycott of the settlements and others saying everything Israeli must be shunned until Israel withdraws from occupied lands.

The movement has scored recent successes, including some European businesses and pension funds cutting investments or trade with Israeli firms connected to West Bank settlements.

Nahshon, the Israeli official, dismissed BDS campaigners as a small group driven by anti-Semitism and “a wish to destroy” Israel.

THE WAY FORWARD

Instead of a dramatic Israeli-Palestinian showdown, continued paralysis appears more likely.

Netanyahu and Abbas have signaled that they don’t want strained relations to break down.

Israel initially punished Abbas for seeking court membership, freezing monthly transfers of more than $100 million it collects for the Palestinians. Israel resumed the transfers after three months amid warnings that a continued freeze could bring down Abbas’ government.

Abbas has indicated he won’t end security coordination between his forces and Israeli troops in the West Bank that is aimed at shared foe Hamas.

Abbas also told senior PLO officials in March he remains committed to negotiations and would go along with the idea of an international peace conference, proposed by France, “despite low expectations.”

Laub reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Mike Corder at The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.

TIME portfolio

See the Places of Power at the Center of Canada’s Controversial Anti-Terror Law

Ottawa's core is occupied by the federal government, coloring its inhabitants' everyday experiences

Following last year’s attacks at Ottawa’s National War Memorial, Canada’s conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a sweeping anti-terrorism act that would extend the powers of the country’s surveillance and policing bodies.

Civil liberties organizations, from Amnesty International to the National Council of Canadian Muslims, have opposed the draft legislation, calling for it to be withdrawn.

For local photographer Tony Fouhse, these events are just the latest to tarnish the idyllic image Ottawa’s tourism board has worked hard to showcase. Already between 2007 and 2010, Fouhse portrayed the capital’s narcotic addicts, forcing people to recognize that less fortunate ones shared their “hospitable” streets.

“Because I like doing things that stand in contrast to one another, I wondered who the opposite of drug users were,” he tells TIME. “They are the disempowered, so it made sense to look at the powerful. Ottawa being the country’s seat of government, I wondered how it manifested itself throughout the city,” explains the 61 year-old who has been working on the series Official Ottawa since 2013.

He drew up a list of places and people he felt embodied power: the Department of National Defense, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police headquarters, the residence of the Prime Minister, parliament, civil servants, official mascots. He walked through the city with his 4×5 camera to reveal the idiosyncrasies that exists when memory, heritage and authority congregate, like a non-descript sign pointing towards “war” – shorthand for the Canadian War Museum – or pastoral flower blossoms in front of the secret services’ offices. He tried different avenues to get in the Conservative Party building – to no avail, no one would grant him permission – until he realized, that his standing outside looking up at this monolith structure would be a far better portrait than a picture taken from the inside.

“The core of the city is occupied by the federal government and its associates,” he says. “It colors our everyday experiences in ways that we’re barely aware of. Most of the time, we’ll only consider our environment if it’s magnificent. Ottawa doesn’t have that. It’s not Rome or Paris. It’s not grandiose. It’s grey sensibleness,” remarks Fouhse who has been living in the city for the past three decades.

At a time when most media outlets are looking for the sentimental and the sensational, Fouhse’s images are oddly quiet; dull moments frozen in time, unremarkable frigid monuments exalted on film. Yet, a sinister tension prevails. Now, in the aftermath of the October shootings and ahead of a vote that may see Canada beef up its national security apparatus, his photos strike as foreboding.

“If you pay attention to the peripheral, you might notice things that you wouldn’t otherwise,” he says. “What you’re doing in that case, is trying to go behind, beyond the public image to see what lurks in the shadows.”

Fouhse wants to compel others to do the same; to, in his own words, “take a step back and to the left.” He intends to share his offbeat view of Canada’s capital through a free newspaper-like publication, for which he is raising funds via Kickstarter. He hopes that people waiting for their turn at the dentist or going about their daily commute might stumble upon it, pick it up and be nudged to look at their surroundings a little differently.

Official Ottawa is too quiet to be an act of civil disobedience,” he says. “In fact, I’m not even sure that art can have that power nowadays. It’s more of a social service announcement, an antidote to the tax-funded Harper-distributed propaganda.”

Tony Fouhse is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Ottawa, Canada.

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

TIME Aging

The World’s Oldest Person Has Died in Japan

The World's Oldest Person Celebrated Ahead Of Turning 117
Buddhika Weerasinghe—Getty Images Misao Okawa, the world's oldest Japanese woman, poses for a photo on her 117th birthday celebration at Kurenai Nursing Home on March 4, 2015, in Osaka, Japan

Misao Okawa was 117 years old

The world’s oldest person, who celebrated her 117th birthday less than a month ago, died early Wednesday in Osaka, Japan.

Staff at Misao Okawa’s nursing home said she died of heart failure, the Associated Press reported. She reportedly lost her appetite 10 days ago, and breathed her last with her grandson and carers beside her.

“She went so peacefully, as if she had just fallen asleep,” said Tomohiro Okada, an official at the home. “We miss her a lot.”

Born on March 5, 1898, Okawa was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2013 as the world’s oldest person. Okawa, who had two daughters and a son with her late husband, is survived by four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

[AP]

TIME Military

U.S. Resumes Weapons Flow to Egypt

An Egyptian Air Force F-16 fighter jet flies low over thousands of anti-government protesters gathered at Tahrir square in Cairo
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters A U.S.-built Egyptian F-16 flies low over thousands of anti-government protesters in Tahrir square in Cairo in January 2011.

But the White House announcement wasn't only about weapons

President Obama on Tuesday lifted his nearly two-year ban on shipping American weapons to Egypt, a restriction imposed after its military kicked out its elected government in 2013.

Obama relayed news of the move in a telephone call to Egyptian President (and former Army general) Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. It will allow for the shipment of 12 F-16 aircraft, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M-1 Abrams tank upgrades. The White House added that the Administration will continue to ask Congress to approve $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.

CRSU.S. aid to Egypt is overwhelmingly for new weapons, designated “FMF” (“Foreign Military Financing”).

The resumption of arms shipments to Egypt is in keeping with the growth of U.S. arms sales abroad. Major American weapons exports grew by 23% between 2005-2009 and 2010-2014, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said on March 16. “The USA has long seen arms exports as a major foreign policy and security tool,” Aude Fleurant, of SIPRI, said when the group released its annual arms-sales accounting. “But in recent years exports are increasingly needed to help the U.S. arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing U.S. military expenditure.”

The White House announcement wasn’t only about weapons. “President Obama also reiterated U.S. concerns about Egypt’s continued imprisonment of non-violent activists and mass trials,” it said in a statement. And, as the Administration drafts proposed legislation to resume military aid to Egypt, it “will not make the so-called ‘democracy certification’ in that legislation,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.

In other words, Egypt remains little more than a military junta now wearing civilian clothes, and the White House won’t pretend otherwise.

All this is what diplomats call a return to the status quo ante—the way things were before. Obama is eager to defeat the militants of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, defeat Islamic fundamentalist uprisings in Libya and Yemen and tamp down Iran’s ambitions—nuclear and otherwise. If he, and the U.S. government, have to cozy up to coup-plotters to achieve that goal, that’s realpolitik.

Cairo has recently suggested it may send ground troops into Yemen to bolster air strikes being carried out there by Saudi Arabia against the Iranian-backed Houthis rebels. Obama is now willing to resume the arms flow to Egypt in hopes of improving relations between the two nations as they join with other countries in a bid to restore stability to the war-racked region.

After nearly 40 years of such aid, the record is not reassuring. “Since the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, the United States has provided Egypt with large amounts of military assistance,” the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this month. “U.S. policy makers have routinely justified aid to Egypt as an investment in regional stability, built primarily on long-running military cooperation and on sustaining the treaty—principles that are supposed to be mutually reinforcing.”

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Forces Take Control of Tikrit From ISIS

Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units celebrate after seizing the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS) group on March 31, 2015.
AFP/Getty Images Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units celebrate after seizing the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS) group on March 31, 2015.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the "liberation of Tikrit" and congratulated Iraqi security forces on their "historic milestone"

Iraqi forces battled Islamic State militants holed up in downtown Tikrit, going house to house Tuesday in search of snipers and booby traps, and the prime minister said security forces had reached the heart of the city.

In a statement on Twitter, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the “liberation of Tikrit” and congratulated Iraqi security forces on their “historic milestone.” But an official statement from his office said the troops “hoisted the Iraqi flag” over the Salahuddin provincial headquarters in Tikrit and are moving to control the entire city.

Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the Salahuddin operation, said his forces fighting from the west were still 300 meters (325 yards) from the center of Tikrit.

Extremists from the Islamic State group seized Saddam Hussein’s hometown last summer during its lightning 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 that is farther north.

Street-by-street fighting raged into the afternoon, and estimates differed widely on how much of this strategic city on the banks of the Tigris River that Iraqi forces held. Army Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati said at least 75 percent of Tikrit had been recaptured. Ammar Hikmat, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said more than 40 percent was under Iraqi control.

“Our security forces are now pushing forward toward the presidential complex and have already entered parts of it,” Hikmat said. “I think the whole city will be retaken within the coming 24 hours.”

An Associated Press reporter embedded with Iraqi security forces saw soldiers surround the iconic presidential palace, and they also surrounded the provincial government headquarters. Soldiers worked to detonate bombs remotely, while federal police went house to house looking to arrest militants or identify booby traps that may slow the offensive.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim said at least 40 militants were killed Tuesday, and Iraqi forces dismantled 300 roadside bombs. He said the federal police, backed by allied militias, were able to clear the government compound, the Tikrit provincial council headquarters, its security headquarters and the presidential palace.

The leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, a collaborative force made up mostly of Shiite militias, also said his fighters had rejoined the Tikrit operation, less than a week after announcing a boycott over U.S. involvement.

Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis told the AP that his fighters participated in the southern offensive and would be joining the offensive on the northern and western fronts shortly.

Iranian military advisers have been providing significant support since the offensive began March 2, arming and training the Iraqi Shiite militias, which have played a prominent role on the battlefield. Militiamen make up more than two-thirds of the force fighting in Tikrit against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

But the operation stalled until U.S. forces joined the offensive by launching airstrikes March 25. Since then, Iraqi allied forces have moved in on the city, although they have been slowed by snipers and hidden bombs. The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said coalition forces conducted seven airstrikes in Iraq since Monday morning, including one in Tikrit which hit multiple IS buildings.

The Iraqi military has struggled to recover from its collapse against the Islamic State group in June, when commanders disappeared in the face of the extremists’ advance. Pleas for more ammunition went unanswered, and in some cases, soldiers stripped off their uniforms and ran.

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.

U.S. military officials have said a coordinated mission to retake Mosul likely will begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed.

“The focus remains to drive ISIL out of Iraq,” said Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force.

“We have struck at ISIL’s command and control, supply lines, fighters and leaders, and military and economic infrastructure and resources,” he added. “We have debilitated ISIL’s oil producing, processing and transportation infrastructure. … It will take time, but we will succeed in our mission.”

 

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