(Updates with the delivery of Russian aircraft in 11th paragraph. See EXTRA for more on turmoil in Iraq.)
June 29 (Bloomberg) -- Iraqi forces backed by helicopter gunships and tanks kicked off an offensive to retake Tikrit from Sunni militants, who seized the northern city after sweeping south from Mosul earlier this month.
As militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant took up positions around the city, Iraqi troops were joined by tribal forces, Jawad Al-Bolani, a security official, said in a phone interview yesterday from an operations command center in Salahuddin. Tikrit, about 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of Baghdad, is the hometown of ousted president Saddam Hussein, who was executed in 2006.
“Security forces launched military and security procedures to cleanse the city of Tikrit from the terrorist groups,” said Al-Bolani, a former interior ministry official who has been assigned to direct and assist the troops.
The push into Tikrit is the first concerted effort by ground forces to repel the ISIL militants, who also hold Mosul, Iraq’s biggest northern city, territory along the borders with Jordan and Syria and are fighting for the nation’s largest refinery. Concern that ISIL’s onslaught may ignite a sectarian civil war in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ No. 2 oil producer has spilled into the region’s stock markets and global energy markets this month.
Al-Bolani said as many as 7,000 pro-government volunteers from Sunni tribes are fighting with the elite forces and other military divisions. He said they have support from U.S. intelligence to bolster “our security capabilities.” Their advance was slowed by explosive devices hidden around the city by the militants, CNN reported.
“Iraqi forces are achieving victory and making significant progress, and I believe that the whole province will shortly be announced as clear from terror,” Al-Bolani said.
Tanks, armored vehicles and 700 additional soldiers were positioned 12 kilometers south of Tikrit, according to al-Mada Press. Hundreds of militants took up positions inside the city with heavy weapons including anti-aircraft guns, according to Dawoud Salman, who runs a dairy distribution company there.
Helicopters attacked ISIL positions near the University of Tikrit, setting a nearby gas station on fire, Salman said in a phone interview. As of late last night, before a calm set in, the university was still being held by ISIL, said Salman, who saw the battleground after fighting subsided.
Militants were also fighting Iraqi security forces in al Abbasiya, about 35 kilometers south of Tikrit. They control the entire Salahuddin province northwest of Baghdad, except for Samarra, a Sunni-populated city, and the Shiite towns of Dujail and Balad, Salman said.
Iraq has received five used Russian Sukhoi fighter jets to help fight the militants, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said last week he bought the aircraft after long delays in the delivery of F-16 jets from the U.S. The Pentagon said it’s delivering the first F-16 aircraft as quickly as possible and has said all along that they’ll be handed over in the fall.
U.S. President Barack Obama, while agreeing to send military advisers to help the Iraqi army fight ISIL, has refrained from ordering air strikes, putting the onus on Iraqi leaders to form a more inclusive government. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad this week to urge the formation of a broad-based coalition.
As the fighting raged, Maliki came under increased pressure from both Kurdish officials and Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader to forge a unity government that can respond to the demands of Sunnis marginalized by his Shiite-dominated administration.
Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader urged politicians to agree on a new government. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in remarks relayed to worshipers at Friday prayers in the holy city of Karbala, said that picking a prime minister, president and speaker when the legislature meets July 1 will lead to the “desired solution” to the crisis.
Maliki has so far refused to step down, even as some of his Shiite allies as well as Sunni and Kurdish leaders have called for his departure. The premier has blamed Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, for fomenting unrest.
--With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in Washington.