The Iraqi government's early claims of a successful offensive to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS) were apparently overstated.
Government fighters near the Tikrit suburb of Al-Awja told VICE News on Saturday that the government's forces were about three miles from the center of Tikrit waiting for commanders to reformulate a battle plan and for more fighters to arrive. Observed from the top of a palace that once belonged to Saddam Hussein and now serves as a military base, the southern part of Tikrit appeared quiet Saturday.
The Tikrit offensive began in early March, and, though it is difficult to confirm reports of heavy losses among pro-government fighters, some commanders have said the offensive was stalled partly to avoid further casualties.
It is also difficult to confirm statements that between 20,000 and 30,000 government fighters are taking part in the battle.
The majority of the fighters are volunteers who responded to a call from Shiite Muslim religious authorities to fight IS, a Sunni group whose members consider Shiites to be apostates. The volunteers receive minimal training and many appear to be poorly organized. When a local television station arrived on a frontline in Kayshifa, a town about 15 miles southeast of Tikrit, members of one group of volunteer fighters fired wildly at an IS position they said was 400 meters away. Fearing they might provoke return fire, their commander shouted at them to stop.
The same commander said government forces had retaken Kayshifa about two weeks before the Tirkit offensive began, but that an attempt to push IS further east from the village stalled amid heavy resistance.
"The bodies of 50 Badr Brigade fighters are in that field," he said, referring to one of the larger militias taking part in the fighting. "We can't reach them."
Underscoring the sensitivity of providing such information, another commander quickly admonished him.
"Don't talk about the martyrs," the second commander said.
Tikrit lies on the main road between Baghdad and Mosul, the largest city under IS control. Between them is Baiji, another city that pro-government forces have tried and failed to retake.
A commander with Badr Brigade, one of at least 15 militias fighting around Tikrit along with remnants of the Iraqi army, said Saturday that video shown on Iraqi state television that purportedly showed pro-government fighters praying in a mosque identified as being in Tikrit was actually filmed in Al-Awja, about 10 miles to the south.
The commander claimed Tikrit is entirely surrounded by government forces. Iraq's interior minister has said one of the reasons for stalling the offensive was to allow civilians to flee Tikrit, but vehicles flying militia flags were the only traffic seen coming from the direction of the frontlines Saturday afternoon on the south side of the city.
On the road between Tikrit and Samarra, hundreds of refugees who fled the fighting in towns around Tikrit retaken by government forces were detained inside a camp guarded by government forces. The detainees included not just fighting age men, but their families as well. The majority of the detainees were children, and government troops guarding the camp said there were three other such camps in the area.
The camp opened at the beginning of the offensive, and some of the refugees said they had been there as long as two weeks. None were free to leave until government forces received a guarantee from someone in Samarra or another city that they were not affiliated with IS. Some said that people had been arrested in the camp as suspected IS members, and still others accused the government's forces of looting and abducting people in the towns they had fled.
"Jund al Imam — they took two of my sons," said one man, referring to one of the many militias fighting. "They also took vehicles and they took our sheep."
Reporting on the fighting around Tikrit is difficult, as frontline battalions tend not to allow journalists access. Skirmishes continued in the area this week, and a doctor at the hospital in Samarra, the nearest medical facility to the frontline, said he had seen the bodies of 20 government fighters in the last five days.
On the way out of Kayshifa on Sunday, rifle fire from the north side of the town targeted a car of militiamen followed by a car of journalists, underscoring the fluidity of the frontlines there.
Follow David Enders on Twitter: @davidjenders