BAGHDAD (Reuters) – An offensive by insurgents that threatens to dismember Iraq seemed to slow yesterday after days of lightning advances as government forces regained some territory in counter-attacks, easing pressure on the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
As Iraqi officials spoke of wresting back the initiative against Sunni militants, neighbouring Shi’ite Iran held out the prospect of working with its longtime US arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.
US President Barack Obama said on Friday he was reviewing military options, short of sending troops, to combat the insurgency. The United States ordered an aircraft carrier moved into the Gulf yesterday, readying it in case Washington decides to pursue a military option after insurgents overran areas in the north and advanced on Baghdad.
Thousands responded to a call by Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric to take up arms and defend the country against the insurgency, led by the Sunni militant Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In a visit to the city of Samarra, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to rout the insurgents, whose onslaught has put the future of Iraq as a unitary state in question and raised the spectre of sectarian conflict.
The militant gains have alarmed Maliki’s Shi’ite supporters in both Iran and the United States, which helped bring him to power after invading the country and toppling former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Oil prices have jumped over fears of ISIL disrupting exports from OPEC member Iraq.
But having encountered little resistance in majority Sunni areas, the militants have now come up against the army, which clawed back some towns and territory around Samarra yesterday with the help of Shi’ite militia.
“We have regained the initiative and will not stop at liberating Mosul from ISIL terrorists, but all other parts,” said Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military’s commander-in-chief, pointing out areas the army had retaken on a map with a laser pen.
Militants in control of Tikrit, 45 km (27 miles) north of Samarra, planted landmines and roadside bombs at the city’s entrances, apparently anticipating a counter-attack by government forces. Residents said the militants deployed across the city and moved anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery into position. Families began to flee north in the direction of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city which Kurdish forces occupied on Thursday after the Iraqi army fled.
Security sources said Iraqi troops attacked an ISIL formation in the town of al-Mutasim, 22 km (14 miles) southeast of Samarra, driving militants out into the surrounding desert yesterday.
The army also reasserted control over the small town of Ishaqi, southeast of Samarra, to secure a road that links the city to Baghdad and the cities of Tikrit and Mosul further north.
Troops backed by the Shi’ite Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia helped retake the town of Muqdadiya northeast of Baghdad, and ISIL was dislodged from Dhuluiya after three hours of fighting with tribesmen, local police and residents, a tribal leader said.