Iraqi troops begin battle to retake Tikrit from rebels
Party leaders pursue talks that could end prime minister Maliki’s divisive rule
Members of the Iraqi security forces celebrate near the bodies of militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), who were killed during clashes with the security forces, on the outskirts of the city of Samarra. Photograph: Reuters
Iraqi government forces backed by helicopter gunships have begun an offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Sunni Islamist militants while party leaders pursued talks that could end prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s divisive rule.
Politicians in Baghdad and world powers warn that unless security forces recover cities lost to the jihadi insurgents in tandem with a rapid formation of a government that can bring Iraq’s estranged communities together, the country could rip apart along sectarian lines and menace the wider Middle East.
On the battlefield, Iraqi troops were trying to advance on Tikrit from the direction of Samarra to the south that has become the military’s line in the sand against a militant advance southwards towards Baghdad.
Iraqi special forces already have snipers inside Tikrit University who were dropped by air there in a bold operation on Thursday. Helicopter gunships fired at targets in Tikrit today and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) fighters abandoned Tikrit’s governorate building, security sources said. More government troops had been air-dropped in a pocket just north of the city.
Iraqi military spokesman Qassim Atta told reporters in Baghdad that 29 “terrorists” were killed yesterday in Tikrit and that militant commanders were struggling because “their morale has started to collapse”.
However, the militants were showing resilience and enjoyed the backing of some local Sunni tribes, as well as former ruling Baathists from the era of late Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein - whose hometown was Tikrit - alienated from Mr Maliki’s government.
In other parts of the country, such as Jurf al-Sakhar, 85km south of Baghdad, militants from Isis were on the offensive.
Three police sources said at least 60 Isis fighters had been killed along with more than 15 Iraqi security forces members when the militant group launched a major attack on an army camp just east of Jurf al-Sakhar, firing mortars and RPG rounds.
“The ISIL (Isis) terrorists fired many mortars at the camp and then started their offensive. They managed to break into the camp but could not hold their positions due to army helicopters cover,” a police colonel said.
Since early June, the radical Isis has overrun most majority Sunni areas in the north and west of Iraq, capturing the biggest northern city Mosul and fanning southwards.
Isis vows to re-create a medieval-style caliphate erasing borders from the Mediterranean to the Gulf and they deem all Shias to be heretics deserving death. They boast of executing scores of Shia government soldiers captured in Tikrit.
In a stunning political intervention yesterday that could mean the demise of Mr Maliki’s eight-year tenure, powerful Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged political blocs to agree on the next premier, parliament speaker and president before a newly elected legislature meets in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Saudi king Abdullah pledged in talks with US secretary of state John Kerry to use his influence to encourage Sunni Muslims to join a new, more inclusive Iraqi government to better combat Islamist insurgents, a senior USofficial said today.
Mr Abdullah’s assurance marked a significant shift from Riyadh’s unwillingness to support a new government unless Mr Maliki, a Shia, steps aside, and reflected growing disquiet about the regional repercussions of Isis rise.
“The next 72 hours are very important to come up with an agreement ... to push the political process forward,” said a lawmaker and former government official from the National Alliance, which groups all Shia Muslim parties.
The lawmaker, who asked for anonymity due to political sensitivities, said he anticipated internal meetings by various parties and a broader session of the National Alliance including Mr Maliki’s State of Law list to be held through the weekend. Some Sunni Muslim parties were to convene later today.
Iraqi Sunnis accuse Mr Maliki of freezing them out of any power and repressing their community, goading armed tribes to support the insurgency led by the fundamentalist group Isis. The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region has also said Mr Maliki should bow out.
Mr Sistani’s entry into the fray will make it hard for Mr Maliki to stay on as caretaker leader as he has since a parliamentary election in April. That means he must either build a coalition to confirm himself in power for a third term or step aside.
Mr Sistani’s message was delivered after a meeting of Shia factions including the State of Law coalition failed to agree on a consensus candidate for prime minister.
In Syria, where Isis controls large swathes of land, other Islamist rebel groups pursued a counter-offensive in the border town of Albu Kamal, challenging Isis’s grip along the Iraqi-Syrian frontier.
US defense officials said yesterday that the Obama administration was flying armed aircraft over Iraq although these aimed to collect intelligence and ensure the safety of US personnel on the ground rather than attack targets.