Iraq’s army sent tanks and armoured vehicles to try to dislodge insurgents from the northern city of Tikrit yesterday, the second day of a determined fightback against a Sunni militant takeover of large stretches of Iraq.
In Baghdad, which is threatened by the rebel advance, top Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish members of parliament scrambled to agree cabinet nominations before parliament meets tomorrow to try to prevent the rebel advance jeopardising Iraq’s future as a unitary state.
They are racing against time as Sunni insurgents led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qaeda offshoot that loathes prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, consolidates its grip on the north and west.
Mr Maliki’s political future after eight years in power will be the most contentious issue.
Troops backed by helicopter gunships began an assault on Tikrit, the birthplace of former president Saddam Hussein, on Saturday, to try to take it back from insurgents who have swept to within driving range of Baghdad.
The army sent in tanks and helicopters to battle Isis militants near the University of Tikrit in the city’s north yesterday, security sources said. Two witnesses said they saw a helicopter gunned down over northern Tikrit.
The offensive was the first major attempt by the army to retake territory after the United States sent up to 300 advisers, mostly special forces, and drones to help the government take on Isis.
Earlier yesterday, deputy prime minister for energy Hussain al-Shahristani, one of Iraq’s most senior politicians, blamed the US for not doing enough to bolster the country’s military, just hours after Russia delivered five Sukhoi jets.
“Yes, there has been a delay from the Americans in handing over contracted arms. We told them, ‘You once did an air bridge to send arms to your ally Israel, so why don’t you give us the contracted arms in time?’” he said.
US officials have disputed similar statements from Iraqi officials in the past and say they have done everything possible to ensure the country is equipped with modern weaponry.
In the latest sign of diplomatic one-upmanship over the crisis, the five Russian Sukhoi jets were delivered to Baghdad late on Saturday, which state television said “would be used in the coming days to strike Isis terrorist groups”.
Eyewitnesses saw the jets unloaded from a transport plane at a military airport in Baghdad as Russian and Iraqi soldiers stood on the tarmac.
Iraq has relied largely on helicopters to counter militants and has few aircraft that can fire advanced missiles.
Iraqi army spokesman Qassim Atta said security forces had killed 142 “terrorists” over the last 24 hours across Iraq, including 70 in Tikrit, and said the armed forces were in control of Tikrit’s university.
“Our security forces have taken complete control of the University of Tikrit and they have raised the Iraqi flag on top of the building,” Mr Atta said.
Iran has also supported Iraq’s government against the onslaught.
An Iranian general said yesterday that his country was ready to help Iraq fight the revolt using the same methods it deployed against rebels in Syria.
“With Syria, too, we announced we would not allow terrorists in the hire of foreign intelligence services to rule and dictate to Syrian people. We will certainly have the same approach with Iraq,” Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy joint chief of staff of the armed forces and a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officer said. On Saturday, Iraqi troops began the assault on Tikrit from the direction of Samarra to the south, where the military has drawn its line in the sand against the insurgents’ advance toward Baghdad.