Iraqi forces fail to reclaim Tikrit from extremists

UN to begin airlift of aid to north of state as pope offers to visit scenes of conflict

 A refugee camp for Yazidis near the Turkish-Iraqi border town of Zakho in Iraq. Photograph: EPA/STR

A refugee camp for Yazidis near the Turkish-Iraqi border town of Zakho in Iraq. Photograph: EPA/STR

Wed, Aug 20, 2014, 01:00

Islamist extremists appeared to have thwarted another short-lived attempt by Iraqi government forces to reclaim the city of Tikrit yesterday, while the UN launched an aid operation to get supplies to more than half a million people displaced by fighting in the north of the country.

The struggle came as further north, Kurdish and Iraqi military, with US help, worked to maintain control of Mosul dam, having reclaimed it from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) militants, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Abu Abd al-Naami, a spokesman for the Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries, which represents some of the country’s Sunni tribes that are fighting against the Iraqi government, claimed that Tikrit had come under attack from the Iraqi army, but that “tribal” and “revolutionary” forces had repulsed the assault.

Mr al-Naami, whose organisation insists there is no such body called Isis, added that fighting continued on the southeastern outskirts of the birthplace of executed former president Saddam Hussein.

Reuters cited Iraqi security officers saying that the operation came under heavy machinegun and mortar fire south of Tikrit, while landmines and snipers to the west of Tikrit prevented the army’s attempt to close in on the city.

As Isis swept through Iraq since June the security situation has deteriorated and created a humanitarian crisis.

Airlift of aid

In an attempt to alleviate the plight of those who have fled from the violence, the UN refugee agency said it would today begin a four-day airlift of tents and goods to Irbil from Aqaba in Jordan. This would be followed by road convoys from Turkey and Jordan and sea shipments from Dubai via Iran over the next 10 days, said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“This is a very, very significant aid push,” he said.

Pope Francis said he was willing to visit scenes of the conflict in Iraq as he criticised the “unjust aggression” of Isis fighters, who have forced religious minorities to flee. “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor,” he said.

Speaking to journalists on board a flight from South Korea to Rome at the end of a five-day visit, the Pope said: “I stress the verb ‘to stop’. I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war’, but stop him [the aggressor]. The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated.”

The pontiff did not rule out the use of force, but he stopped short of endorsing military intervention in the conflict, noting that on many occasions, the “excuse of stopping the unjust aggressor” has been used by world powers “to take over populations and carry out conquest wars”. He said he would be willing to visit persecuted Christian minorities in the area “if necessary . . . if it is a possibility I would be available . . . in this moment, it is not the best thing but I am available”.

Pope Francis urged the UN to accelerate efforts to quell the conflict, stressing that it could not be stopped by “one single nation”, adding that the UN was created for this purpose after the second world war.

The pontiff said he had written to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and had decided to send Cardinal Filoni, a “personal envoy”, to the region. The pope has been urging his 4.37 million Twitter followers to pray for peace in the region. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)