Iraqi ground troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni rebels from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers the rebels seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country.
The army's push followed heavy fighting in the city between special forces and the Al-Qaeda breakaway Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) together with other allied Sunni rebels. The operation is Iraq’s largest yet against the ISIL.
After watching much of Iraq slip out of government hands, military officials have sought to portray the push that began before dawn as a significant step that puts the army back on the offensive. The operation includes commandos, tanks and helicopters, as well as pro-government Sunni and Shia fighters.
Iraqi military sources claim to have alreadly established a foothold at Tikrit University, an epicenter of their fight to reclaim the city, but ISIL said it successfully repelled the attack.
The Iraqi military destroyed a convoy of about 20 rebel vehicles between Tikrit and Samarra, a nearby city, Iraqi State TV reported Saturday.
Forces also carried out three airstrikes on the rebel-held city of Mosul. One of the strikes hit a commercial area that did not have any obvious military target, residents said.
Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the Salahuddin Operation Command, said there was no concrete timeline for the operation to conclude. The number of casualties in Saturday’s operation was not immediately known.
A Tikrit resident, who spoke anonymously out of concern for his safety, told The Associated Press that the rebels were still patrolling the city. Another Tikrit resident, Muhanad Saif al-Din, said many locals had fled in anticipation of the clashes.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon confirmed on Friday that it was flying armed drones over Baghdad to watch over U.S. troops operating outside the confines of the U.S. embassy there. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said in Saudi Arabia that the U.S. would begin airstrikes against the rebels, but only after Iraq chooses a new, more inclusive government.
ISIL and its allies have overrun much of Iraq's Sunni heartland, a vast territory stretching west and north from Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders. After a dramatic initial push, the onslaught appears to have slowed as the rebels bump up against predominantly Shia areas stretching south from Baghdad.
Iraq's large, U.S.-trained and equipped military melted away in the face of the offensive, sapping morale and public confidence in its ability to stem the rebel surge — let alone claw back lost ground. If successful, the Tikrit operation could help restore a degree of faith among the Iraqi public and the international community in the security forces.
Al Jazeera and wire services