BAGHDAD — The police on Tuesday briefly detained a woman near the city of Samarra who was said to be a relative of the leader of the Islamic State, in a sign that the beleaguered security forces are looking for any foothold to use against the militant group.
At the same time, militants with the group appeared to have slowed efforts by the Iraqi security forces to retake Tikrit and themselves took several small villages southwest of Baghdad, where the Iraqi military and militias have been fighting to stop them.
At least six soldiers were killed in that fight, according to officials at the hospital in the town of Mussayib. But a militia leader fighting there said on Monday that 10 had been killed and 30 wounded.
The police activity around Samarra comes because the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, comes from a tribe whose origins are in the area. Members of the security forces and residents say that the government appears to be looking for any of his relatives who might have information about him.
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The tactic of detaining female relatives of insurgents has been used repeatedly by Iraqi security forces, and it has drawn sharp criticism from Sunni leaders. A member of the security forces said the woman had been released because the forces do not want to alienate Sunni residents whose help they need to fight the militants.
Fighters for the Islamic State told supporters they were furious about the woman’s detention and would take revenge, but they did not verify whether she was a relative of al-Baghdadi.
“We will get into Samarra not just because of this woman, but for all women,” one militant said. “This is not the first time that they arrested women. They arrested another two before, and women are a red line for us.”
The militants have long had a goal of damaging the Askariya Shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites to Shiites, so the threat was not new.
In interviews, security force members in Samarra as well as a residents said that the detained woman had been driving with her husband on the outskirts of Samarra, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, when a police SWAT team tried to stop them.
Her husband at first refused to stop the car, then got out and ran. When the woman was taken into custody, the news spread quickly, and it was learned that she came from a well-known family. The heads of tribes as well as politically connected figures intervened on her behalf to obtain her release. However a senior security forces commander in the area said he was told that her family was related to al-Baghdadi.
In a Sunni area known as Jurf al-Sakhar, less than 50 miles south of Baghdad, there was another in a series of bloody battles for what are little more than deserted villages and checkpoints.
The Iraqi army, bolstered by militias, began a mission around 11 p.m. Monday to retrieve the bodies of soldiers killed in a fight for a militant-held village. But when they advanced toward the village, Islamic State fighters met them with a volley of mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire.
After three or four of the security forces were killed, the commander ordered a retreat, and militant fighters followed, said a lieutenant, who was fighting there and asked that his name not be used since he was not authorized to speak to reporters. The militants then took over a police checkpoint, moving the front line a few hundred meters farther into Babil province.