BAGHDAD — Iraqi troops and Shiite Muslim militias, backed by attack helicopters, mounted a major push Saturday to retake the strategic city of Tikrit in a sign that the beleaguered army was fighting back after ceding large chunks of the country to Sunni Muslim militants.
After an early morning operation in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, Iraqi state television said army troops had regained control of the Salahuddin provincial headquarters building and killed an unknown number of fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Qaida splinter group that seized the city June 11.
Iraqi television reported that army tanks and armored vehicles cleared the highway between Tikrit and Samarra, site of a revered Shiite Muslim shrine, 20 miles to the south. The bombing of the shrine in 2006 set off Iraq’s sectarian civil war, and army troops and pro-government Shiite militias have rushed to Samarra in recent weeks to protect it from another attack.
Iraqi officials now say that the highway from Baghdad to Tikrit is in government hands, which would deprive ISIS and its allies of one route to the capital. Troops are battling on two other fronts, trying to keep the militants from pushing into Abu Ghraib, the gateway to Baghdad from the west, and to secure a predominantly Sunni belt south of the capital.
In one such Sunni town, Jarf Sakhr, 35 miles southwest of Baghdad, heavy clashes left at least 15 government soldiers and 60 ISIS fighters dead, according to hospital officials quoted by the Reuters news agency. The agency said that the battle began after militants attacked an army camp with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades.
But the news from Tikrit offered some relief for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki just before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and three days before the Iraqi parliament begins the process of selecting a prime minister. Al-Maliki is determined to secure a third term despite widespread opposition and accusations that he has created a Shiite-led authoritarian regime.
“We have a great victory at the beginning of Ramadan,” Lt. Gen. Sabah Fatlawi, commander of Iraqi troops in Samarra, told the Sumeriya private news channel by phone. “The spirit of ISIS has collapsed because they have no faith and they have lost the battle.”
The army also received a boost with the delivery of used fighter jets from Russia, which al-Maliki said would provide firepower to help dislodge the militants. The Iraqi army purchased 36 F-16 jets from the United States but al-Maliki complained that they hadn’t arrived yet because of a lengthy procurement process.
“Within the coming hours, we will use the planes in this battle” in Tikrit, Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta, the Iraqi military spokesman, said during a news conference.
Elsewhere, in the contested central province of Diyala, Iraqi special forces reportedly killed a commander with an ISIS-allied Sunni militant group called the Naqshbandi Army in a shootout that also left five of his deputies dead. The commander, Ahmed Khalid Ibrahim, was considered a senior figure in the militant group, which includes members of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath Party.
A meeting Saturday of the main alliance of Shiite lawmakers failed to reach consensus on a prime ministerial candidate as the bloc remained divided over al-Maliki’s push for a third term. U.S. officials have urged Iraqi leaders to speedily form an inclusive government, and on Friday the revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani demanded that lawmakers choose a prime ministerial candidate before parliament opens Tuesday, a call that appeared likely to go unheeded.
Ali Fayadh, a lawmaker from of al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, which won the most parliamentary seats and therefore had the first crack at nominating a prime minister, said the bloc was considering alternative candidates to al-Maliki but was “not in a hurry” to make a decision.
“We don’t have one nominee; we have a list of nominees,” Fayadh said. “We will negotiate about them in an open session and then we’ll see what happens.”
(Special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)