– Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen captured a town Tuesday on the outskirts of the ISIL-held city of Tikrit, sealing off ­Saddam Hussein's hometown in preparation to confront the extremists in one of their biggest strongholds, officials said.

Seizing Alam puts the offensive on course to attempt to liberate Tikrit in the coming days, the ultimate battle-readiness test for Iraqi forces now advancing there without the support of U.S.-led airstrikes. Their operation likely will set the stage for how Iraq attempts to retake the more-densely populated cities of Mosul and Fallujah from the militants.

Iraqi forces entered Alam early Tuesday, their armored convoys roaring past the empty arid fields and occasional palm tree before gaining full control hours later, two Iraqi officials said. By nightfall, the military sealed off Tikrit on all sides, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, lies about 80 miles north of Baghdad. Sniper fire and roadside bombs initially hampered the advance into Alam, said Ahmed al-Karim, the provincial council chief. Extremists also blew up the Alam bridge to slow the Iraqi force, military officials said.

Among those directing operations is Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force. The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shiite militias in the campaign have raised fears of possible sectarian cleansing should Tikrit, an overwhelmingly Sunni city, fall to the government troops.

Associated Press