Iraqi forces attempt to drive Islamic State out of Tikrit

UN to begin airlift of aid to 500,000 people fleeing violence in northern Iraq tomorrow

A refugee camp for Yazidis near the town of Zakho, Iraq. The United Nations refugee agency today said it was launching a major aid operation to get supplies to more than half a million people displaced by fighting in northern Iraq. Photograph: EPA.

A refugee camp for Yazidis near the town of Zakho, Iraq. The United Nations refugee agency today said it was launching a major aid operation to get supplies to more than half a million people displaced by fighting in northern Iraq. Photograph: EPA.

Tue, Aug 19, 2014, 12:57

Iraqi forces launched an offensive today to drive Islamic State fighters out of Tikrit, home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, while the militants warned they would attack Americans “in any place”.

In Geneva, the United Nations refugee agency announced a major aid operation to get supplies to more than half a million people displaced by fighting in northern Iraq.

Buoyed by an operation to recapture a strategic dam from the jihadists after two months of setbacks, Iraqi army units backed by Shi’ite militias fought their way towards the centre of Tikrit, a city 130km north of Baghdad which is a stronghold of the Sunni Muslim minority.

“Our forces are advancing from two directions with cover from army helicopters, mortar and artillery shelling the positions of the Islamic State fighters in and around the city,” an army major said.

Sunni Muslim fighters led by the Islamic State swept through much of northern and western Iraq in June, capturing the Sunni cities of Tikrit and Mosul as well as the Mosul dam, a fragile structure which controls water and power supplies to millions of people down the Tigris river valley.

However, yesterday fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region said they had regained control of the hydro electric dam with the help of US air strikes. US president Barack Obama also announced that the dam had been retaken.

The Iraqi major said fierce fighting was underway near Tikrit’s main hospital 4km from the city centre. “Helicopters are pounding the bases of the terrorists to prevent them from regrouping,” he said.

As well as a push from the south, Iraqi forces were advancing slowly from the west due to land mines and roadside bombs planted by the militants, he added. A police captain confirmed the details of the fighting.

The Islamic State has concentrated on taking territory for its self-proclaimed caliphate both in Syria, where it is also fighting the forces of president Bashar al-Assad, and across the border in Iraq. Unlike al-Qaeda, the movement from which it split, it has so far steered clear of attacking Western targets in or outside the region.

However, a video posted on the internet warned Americans, in English, that “we will drown all of you in blood” if US air strikes hit Islamic State fighters. The video also showed a photograph of an American who was beheaded during the US occupation of Iraq that followed Saddam’s overthrow in 2003.

The UNHCR refugee agency said a four-day airlift of tents and other goods would begin tomorrow to Arbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, from the Jordanian port of Aqaba. This would be followed by road convoys from Turkey and Jordan and sea shipments from Dubai via Iran over the next 10 days, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.

“This is a very, very significant aid push and certainly one of the largest I can recall in quite a while,” he told a news briefing in Geneva. “This is a major humanitarian crisis and disaster. It continues to affect many people.”

Coinciding with the Iraqi and Kurdish advances, Damascus government forces have stepped up air strikes on Islamic State positions in and around the city of Raqqa - its stronghold in eastern Syria.

Analysts believe Assad - who is firmly in control in the capital more than three years into the civil war - is seizing the moment to show his potential value to Western states that backed the uprising against him but are now increasingly concerned by the Islamic State threat.

“The Syrians are meeting the Americans, or the West, halfway in the question of fighting terrorism, and are presenting themselves as a partner in combating terrorism,” said Salem Zahran, a Lebanese journalist with close ties to the Syrian government.

The Islamic State added new fighters in Syria at a record rate in July, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict. Some 6,300 men - 80 per cent of them Syrian and the rest foreign fighters - joined last month, Rami Abdelrahman, founder of the Observatory, said.

Reuters