Iraqi army drives rebels out of Saddam Hussein’s home town
US generals believe Baghdad can be defended but unsure how much ground can be reclaimed
Iraqi security forces and armed volunteers move with military vehicles during clashes with militants of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, in the town of Dalli Abbas in Diyala province. Photograph: Reuters.
The Iraqi army has driven Sunni insurgents out of late dictator Saddam Hussein’s home village, state media and police said, part of a campaign to retake wide areas of northern and western Iraq overrun by the rebels.
The al-Qaeda splinter group leading the insurgency has declared a medieval-style Islamic caliphate erasing the borders of Iraq and Syria, and threatened to march on the Iraqi capital Baghdad to topple the Shi’ite-led central government.
Pursuing a counter-offensive, government forces along with Shi’ite Muslim volunteers backed by helicopter gunships recaptured the village of Awja last night, according to state media, police and local inhabitants.
They said three insurgents were killed in an hour-long battle, and the main body of militant forces had fled south along the eastern bank of the Tigris River across from Awja.
State television quoted the prime minister’s military spokesman, Qassim Atta, as saying that Awja had been “totally cleansed” and 30 militants had been killed. No casualty figures could be independently verified.
The army said it now held the 50 km stretch of main highway running north from the city of Samarra - which is 100 km north of Baghdad - to Awja.
But the mainly Sunni communities along this corridor remained hostile towards government forces and their convoys were coming under guerrilla attack, while the city of Tikrit just north of Awja remained in the grip of insurgents.
Tikrit fell early in the lightning offensive last month that gave jihadi militants Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, control of most majority Sunni regions north of Baghdad.
During his decades-long rule until his fall to a US-led invasion in 2003, Saddam Hussein surrounded himself with relatives from Awja and Tikrit, creating a praetorian circle of aides from the Sunni Arab Albu Nasir tribe.
Among the fighters Iraqi forces repelled from Awja were members of the Naqshbandi Army, made up of former army officers as well as loyalists of Hussein’s old Baathist party.
Though Islamists and old Baathists have banded together to fight their common foe - the government of Shi’ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki - cracks are showing in their loose bloc as many Baath party veterans do not hold jihadist views.
Top US defence officials, who have deployed advisers to Iraq to assess the state of its military, believe it will be able to defend Baghdad but struggle to recapture lost territory, mainly because of logistical weaknesses.
“If you’re asking me will the Iraqis at some point be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they’ve lost, I think that’s a really broad campaign quality question,” Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington. “Probably not by themselves.”
Gen Dempsey said “the future is pretty bleak” for Iraqis unless they can bridge sectarian differences within their Shi’ite-dominated government. The absence of an inclusive government giving all of Iraq’s main communities a say in power, he said, helped explain ISIL’s almost unopposed onslaught last month.
The Isis militants today seized an eastern Syrian oil field as they tighten their grip on a length of the Euphrates river stretching through Syria and Iraq.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that fighters from the Islamic State group seized the al-Tanak oil field. Another group, the activist collective of Deir el-Zour, also reported the seizure. The field is in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour, near Iraq, and it followed the Islamic State group’s seizure of Syria’s largest oil field yesterday.
Both oil fields were taken from other rebel groups. The extremist Sunni Muslim group now has nearly full control over a corridor from the Syrian provincial capital of Deir el-Zour to the border town of Boukamal. The area neighbours parts of northern and western Iraq that it seized last month, allowing the group to flow freely between the two countries.
The group is led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who this week declared the establishment of a caliphate in the lands it has seized in Syria and Iraq.
It proclaimed al-Baghdadi the head of its new self-styled state and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.