BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces pressed a campaign on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) to retake militant-held Tikrit, clashing with Sunni fighters nearby and pounding positions inside the city with air strikes in their biggest counter-offensive so far.
A senior officer said security forces were coordinating with Washington, which has deployed military advisers to Iraq as it battles jihadist-led militants who have overrun large parts of five provinces north and west of Baghdad.
Armed United States drones were flying over the city to provide protection for the advisers and other American personnel against the militants led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is revered among Iraq’s majority community, has urged political leaders to unite and form a new government to tackle the crisis.
International agencies have sounded the alarm over the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, with up to 10,000 people having fled a northern Christian town and 1.2 million displaced in Iraq this year.
Thousands of soldiers, backed by air cover, tanks and bomb disposal units, were advancing on Tikrit—executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown—which fell to insurgents on June 11.
Witnesses reported heavy clashes as troops moved in from the west.
“A large military operation started today to clear Tikrit of ISIL,” said Staff Lieutenant General Sabah Fatlawi, adding that it has two choices—“flee or be killed”.
Helicopter-borne troops landed at a strategically located university campus on Thursday, with sporadic clashes reported throughout Friday.
Taking the university would be an important step towards retaking Tikrit, one of the largest militant-held cities.
Warplanes were targeting insurgents there, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s security spokesman said.
Security forces also now fully controlled a key road from Baghdad to Samarra, between the capital and Tikrit, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta added.
There is coordination with the US over “studying important targets”, Atta said, without elaborating.
Twenty security personnel— nine soldiers and 11 police—were killed in clashes on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) in three areas southwest of Baghdad, an officer and doctors said.