The Iraqi military’s push to retake the flash-point city of Tikrit faltered Sunday in a sign of the difficulties facing government forces as they attempt to wrest control of key areas of the country back from a determined Sunni Muslim insurgency.
A day earlier, Iraqi officials claimed to have entered Tikrit, 80 miles north of the capital, Baghdad, but residents said Sunday that there was no sign of government troops or allied militias and that the city remained largely in insurgent hands.
Army commandos airlifted last week to a university on the city’s outskirts raised the Iraqi flag over the 200-acre campus in a symbolic boost to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who is desperately trying to secure a third term amid growing opposition to his authoritarian government. Iraqi lawmakers were due to convene Tuesday to begin the process of selecting a prime minister amid signs that Maliki’s support within his Shiite Muslim coalition was slipping.
Reached by phone, residents in the predominantly Sunni city of Tikrit — a center of the anti-American insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq — said at least two Iraqi army helicopters were damaged by insurgents as they transported troops to the university. Iraqi state television initially reported that commandos had regained control of the provincial headquarters building, but residents disputed that account.
The push into Tikrit is the first major counteroffensive by Iraqi forces since insurgents led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — an Al Qaeda offshoot — seized the northern city of Mosul and much of northern and western Iraq earlier this month. The army operation began just as the first of up to 300 U.S. military advisors arrived in Baghdad to help combat the insurgency.
Three teams of about a dozen U.S. soldiers each have begun assessing Iraqi forces and established an operations center at the sprawling U.S. Embassy campus in central Baghdad. President Obama is said to be weighing air strikes against ISIS targets, but any such action likely would occur after the assessment teams have had more time to study intelligence and observe the fighting in Iraq, officials have said.
Dozens of unarmed U.S. Global Hawk drones are flying over the country, collecting intelligence that is being shared with Iraqi forces. The information helped the Iraqi army and allied Shiite militias in recent days clear the highway connecting Baghdad and Tikrit, including the town of Samarra, home to a revered Shiite shrine that the insurgents have tried to attack.
American officials are urging Iraqi security forces not to rush into attempting to retake cities, which would risk bogging the army down in dangerous urban warfare against well-armed insurgents just as U.S. forces were a decade ago. Without such a push, however, analysts believe the insurgents are consolidating their hold on territory they control and plotting ways to strike Baghdad.
Iraqi army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta said government forces killed 142 “terrorists” in the last 24 hours and destroyed 51 vehicles. The claims could not be immediately verified.