BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi government forces backed by helicopter gunships began an offensive yesterday 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 on Saturday and ISIL 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 yesterday that 29 “terrorists” were killed on Friday 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 Maliki’s government.
In other parts of the country, such as Jurf al-Sakhar, 53 miles (85km) south of Baghdad, militants from ISIL – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – were on the offensive.
Three police sources said at least 60 ISIL 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 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 ISIL has overrun most majority Sunni areas in the north and west of Iraq, capturing the biggest northern city Mosul and fanning southwards.
ISIL vows to re-create a medieval-style caliphate erasing borders from the Mediterranean to the Gulf and they deem all Shi’ites to be heretics deserving death. They boast of executing scores of Shi’ite government soldiers captured in Tikrit.
In a stunning political intervention on Friday that could mean the demise of Maliki’s eight-year tenure, powerful Shi’ite 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 US official said yesterday.
Abdullah’s assurance marked a significant shift from Riyadh’s unwillingness to support a new government unless Maliki, a Shi’ite, steps aside, and reflected growing disquiet about the regional repercussions of ISIL’s 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 Shi’ite 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 Maliki’s State of Law list to be held through the weekend. Some Sunni Muslim parties were to convene later yesterday.