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Iraq forces launch push for insurgent-held city



By RYAN LUCAS and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA

BAGHDAD (AP) - The Iraqi government launched its biggest push yet to wrest back ground lost to Sunni militants, as soldiers backed by tanks and helicopter gunships began an offensive Saturday to retake the northern city of Tikrit.

There were conflicting reports as to how far the military advanced in its initial thrust toward Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Residents said militants were still in control of the city by nightfall, while Iraqi officials said troops had reached the outskirts and even pressed deep into the heart of Tikrit itself.

What was clear, however, was the government's desire to portray the campaign as a significant step forward after two weeks of demoralizing defeats at the hands of insurgents led by the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The militants' surge across much of northern and western Iraq has thrown the country into its deepest crisis since U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011, and threatens to cleave the nation in three along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Iraq's large, U.S.-trained and equipped military melted away in the face of the militant onslaught, sapping morale and public confidence in its ability to stem the tide, let alone claw back lost turf. If successful, the Tikrit operation could help restore a degree of faith in the security forces - as well as embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting to keep his job.

Saturday's fighting began before dawn with helicopter gunships carrying out airstrikes on insurgents who were attacking troops at a university campus on Tikrit's northern outskirts, Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. The government forces had established a bridgehead on the university's sprawling grounds after being airlifted in the previous day.

Sporadic clashes continued throughout the day at the university. At the same time, several columns of troops pushed north toward Tikrit from Samarra, a city along the banks of the Tigris River and home to an important Shiite shrine, a senior security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

By sundown, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragheef, a commander in the Salahuddin Operational Command, said a column of troops had reached the edge of Tikrit, while another had secured an air base that previously served as a U.S. military facility known as Camp Speicher.

The governor of Salahuddin province, Ahmed Abdullah al-Jabouri, told The Associated Press that troops pushed into Tikrit itself, reaching as far the provincial council building.

However, residents reached by telephone Saturday evening said militants were still in control of Tikrit, a predominantly Sunni city of more than 200,000, and patrolling the city's streets.

They confirmed the clashes around the university, and reported fighting between the Islamic State and Iraqi forces to the southeast of the city as well. Some residents described black smoke rising from a presidential palace complex located along the edge of the Tigris River after army helicopters opened fire on the compound.

They spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for their safety.

Many locals had already fled the city in anticipation of a government assault, said another Tikrit resident, Muhanad Saif al-Din.

"Tikrit has become a ghost town because a lot of people left over the past 72 hours, fearing random aerial bombardment and possible clashes as the army advances toward the city," Saif al-Din said. "The few people who remain are afraid of possible revenge acts by Shiite militiamen who are accompanying the army. We are peaceful civilians and we do not want to be victims of this struggle."

He said the city has been without power or water since Friday night.

The military also carried out three airstrikes on the insurgent-held city of Mosul early Saturday. Mosul is Iraq's second-largest city, and was the initial target of the Islamic State's offensive in the country.

South of Baghdad, heavy clashes between security forces and Sunni insurgents in the town of Jurf al-Sakhar killed at least 21 troops and dozens of militants, police and hospital officials said on condition of anonymity because they were authorized to brief the media. Jurf al-Sakhar, located some 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside the capital, is part of a predominantly Sunni ribbon that runs just south of Baghdad.

The Islamic State, which already has seized control of vast swaths in northern and eastern Syria, aims to create a state straddling Syria and Iraq governed by Islamic law. In Iraq, the group has formed an alliance of sorts with fellow Islamic militants as well as former members of Saddam's Baath party to fight al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.

The militants have tapped into deep-seated discontent among Iraq's Sunni community with al-Maliki, who has been widely accused of monopolizing power and alienating Sunnis. The prime minister's failure to promote national reconciliation has been blamed for fueling Sunni anger.

The United States and other world powers have pressed al-Maliki to reach out to the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities and have called for a more inclusive government that can address longstanding grievances.

Al-Maliki is fighting to retain his post, which he has held since 2006, as many former allies drop their support and Iraqis increasingly express doubts about his ability to unify the country. Al-Maliki, however, has shown little inclination publicly to step aside, and instead appears set on a third consecutive term as prime minister after his bloc won the most seats in April elections.

The government received a boost in its fight against the militants with the delivery Saturday in Baghdad of five Russian-made Sukhoi jets. Two Iraqi security officials confirmed arrival of the planes, which Iraq purchased secondhand from Russia.

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imhhc June 28 2014 at 6:38 PM

All these countries want to do is kill each other over their religious beliefs. We will NEVER change that. Leave them alone and let them fight it out. Its been going on for centuries and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

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9 replies
vstlvlvaccaro June 28 2014 at 7:23 PM

Thanks to OUR government, this has been the biggest scam inflicted on the American people since our inception ...... Wasted lives, wasted money and the f'n Middle East is worse than ever .... we need to keep our nose out of other countries business ..PERIOD!

Flag Reply +23 rate up
9 replies
Richard June 28 2014 at 7:31 PM

No more wasted money on all these ingrates. Use the money to heal and finance our veterans here at home. Freedom isn't Free, and our troops deserve better after they have served.

Flag Reply +19 rate up
2 replies
jvinylman502 Richard June 28 2014 at 8:18 PM

'Save a bit of that money to fight these dirt bags in the future as they promise to " See us in New York ". As for me .. I'm done with all of them.( terrorists )... find em" , bomb em' and be done. But no ! We have a weak leader who sympathizes with them.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
2 replies
Richard jvinylman502 June 28 2014 at 9:22 PM

Ditto.

Flag +1 rate up
trfyol jvinylman502 June 29 2014 at 12:06 PM

And our "weak leader" is doing EXACTLY what you are saying - does that make you a "sympathizer" too; or just a fool with a keyboard to play with?

Flag 0 rate up
siscosdad Richard June 28 2014 at 10:36 PM

Yes, but never relax our guard until all Islamic insurgents are dead,. They will never stop. This is what they DO!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Karen June 28 2014 at 7:03 PM

Amazing what the Iraqi troops can do if they have to - ie, if we stay out of it. They know better how to fight off muslim terrorists, anyway. American troops could defeat them in a heartbeat if they weren't restricted by stupid Rules of Engagement. Notice mid-East soldiers don't have stupid war rules they have to follow.

Flag Reply +16 rate up
3 replies
jj June 28 2014 at 8:25 PM

Obama is asking for $500 million to help the rebels in Syria, does not who these rebels are, doesn't care if they like us or worse be our enemy..we have an idiot for President, That money should help our economy;jobs,education,industry,children immigrating US.

Flag Reply +13 rate up
6 replies
davandsher June 28 2014 at 7:13 PM

The United States could stop this mess with a few drones. Øbama can make speeches but it seems he can't do very much else that doesn't hurt Americans.

Flag Reply +8 rate up
6 replies
Richard June 28 2014 at 6:47 PM

Too bad the Crusades didn't have a NUKE. This endless B/S if infighting in the middle east would have ended then.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
3 replies
bd2thebone June 28 2014 at 9:33 PM

Hmmm.......... I guess when they figured out we weren't going to do it they had to waste their own money and lives to get it done.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
mad1675 June 29 2014 at 10:45 AM

Saddam Hussein, not looking so bad now. What did we accomplish ? Hundreds of thousands dead, thousands of Americans, dead. And the killing continues. Their culture doesn't know anything else than a Saddam,.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
3 replies
neutralslamm June 29 2014 at 12:24 PM

You muthafukng liberals need to put on your man pants and realize the world is tooth and nail, then start taking care of yourselves - not depending on uncle sugar to put food on your tables and cloth the children you made!!!!!!!!!!!!

Flag Reply +4 rate up
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