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Thousands Reportedly Flee Battle In Tikrit

A Shiite fighter sits on a military vehicle in the town of Hamrin in Salahuddin province on Thursday.

Thousands of refugees have fled fighting in Tikrit, according to the U.N., as Iraqi forces backed by Shiite militias and Kurdish peshmerga battle to expel extremists from the self-declared Islamic State from the city.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that ISIS militants have set fire to oil wells in Iraq's north in an effort to slow government forces.

According to the news agency: "On Thursday, militants set fire to some oil wells outside the city, an oil official said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information. The smoky fires were apparently meant to obscure targets from government bombing raids, part of a wide-scale operation that began Monday."

The United Nations says the refugees are heading south toward the city of Samara to escape the fighting in Tikrit, best known as the hometown of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"But many families are stranded at checkpoints," the BBC adds. "Aid convoys carrying relief supplies are being sent to the area by UN agencies to help those affected."

As we reported earlier this week, Iran also reportedly has sent fighters to help in retaking the contested city from the Sunni extremist group.

The outcome at Tikrit, according to Reuters, "will determine whether and how fast the Iraqi forces can advance further north and attempt to win back Mosul, the biggest city under Islamic State rule."

The Guardian quotes Ahmad al-Kinani, a member of the political council of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, a Shia militia taking part in the offensive as saying the situation for the Islamic State "is deteriorating and God willing the advance will continue."

According to the newspaper: "Kinani said Isis had deployed suicide bombers in vehicles as a primary weapon to hold off the advance. He said another difficulty was the numerous booby traps and IEDs set up by Isis in various neighborhoods in the city. But he insisted Isis was quickly losing morale and ammunition."

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is quoted by Time as warning of the possibility of sectarian warfare if control of Tikrit is regained from ISIS:

"If Daesh is a big threat in Iraq, another threat is Shi'ite militias," Davutoglu told Time, referring to the Islamic State. "This is very important. If Daesh evacuates Tikrit or Mosul and if Shi'ite militias come in, then there will be sectarian war. Therefore all these cities, Sunni populated areas, should be liberated by the inhabitants of those cities."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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