IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi army commandos and Iranian-trained Shiite Muslim militias pressed their first significant counteroffensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Friday, battling Sunni insurgents in rebel-held Tikrit after a dramatic helicopter assault into the town Thursday afternoon.
The assault’s stakes are high for Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose army has been in headlong retreat for almost three weeks as ISIL and its tribal allies captured the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, besieged its largest refinery at Baiji and threatened its biggest military base at Balad. Recapturing Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s hometown — would be a major boost ahead of the start of next week’s parliamentary session. Defeat would be disaster.
The initial assault Thursday involved commandos from a unit that reports directly to al-Maliki. They were airlifted aboard three helicopters to Tikrit University’s stadium, where they were met with heavy fire from ISIL. At least one of the helicopters was shot down.
The commandos managed in all-night fighting to take control of tall buildings near the stadium, according to witnesses and local residents. On Friday, they were reinforced by militiamen thought to be members of the Shiite group Asiab al-Haq, an Iranian-trained militia with extensive experience fighting in Iraq against the U.S.-led occupation and in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar Assad, which faces its own Sunni rebel uprising. Reports indicated the commandos and militia members were battling to expand their perimeter late Friday, with uncertain results.
Massive desertions in recent weeks have crippled Iraq’s American-trained and -equipped military, making it ineffective in countering ISIL fighters, who have teamed up with Sunni tribes and former officers from Saddam’s Baath Party to storm within a handful of miles of Baghdad. ISIL fighters have essentially cut off the capital from neighboring Jordan and Syria by seizing villages and cities along highways north and west of Baghdad.
It remained unclear Friday whether the government forces would succeed in taking back Tikrit, which fell to the advancing insurgents June 11. The Defense Ministry in Baghdad offered no comment on the fighting.
Witnesses interviewed by local television and rebroadcast by international satellite television channels described the fighting as dramatic in a city where opposition to the Maliki government has been intense and the ISIL invaders were greeted as rescuers.
Ahmed al-Jubbour, a professor at the university’s college of agriculture, said in an interview later replayed on Al-Jazeera that he had witnessed battles for control of the university’s colleges of agriculture and sports education.
“I saw one of the helicopters land opposite the university and I saw clashes between dozens of militants and government forces,” he said.
The arrival of Shiite militia reinforcements at the stadium Friday was followed by air attacks on areas around Tikrit, which were shown on videos uploaded to the Internet. They showed damage from what residents said were crude barrel bombs, which generally cannot be aimed effectively at military targets and are commonly used by the government in Syria against rebel-held areas.
The video showed at least one helicopter being shot down by militant gunfire on Friday afternoon and fixed-wing aircraft dropping bombs on neighborhoods near the university. The Iraqi air force has no jet aircraft, and its so-called strike capability is thought to be limited to a pair of single-engine Cessna aircraft capable of firing Hellfire missiles.
“They dropped barrel bombs here; we were home and all of a sudden two blasts took place. There is no one here. No militants here in the region,” one resident said in video broadcast by Al-Jazeera.
Claims by the mostly Sunni residents of the town that government forces are indiscriminately targeting them and not militants were repeated all over Iraqi social media and highlight the sectarian nature of the conflict. Despite pressure from the United States, al-Maliki remains resistant to calls from Sunni and even some Shiite political parties to form a national unity government to address the crisis and bring now-rebellious Sunni communities back into the political process in an effort to isolate ISIL from its local allies.
On Thursday, the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for al-Maliki to either reach out to Sunnis as a new government is formed as Parliament begins meeting or to resign, the most prominent Shiite politician to defy the embattled prime minister openly thus far.
Osama al-Najafi, a Sunni politician who was the governor of Nineveh province before the uprising drove him from Mosul, the provincial capital, to the safety of the Kurdish autonomous region, said that al-Maliki refuses to see any significant difference between the Islamist radicals in ISIL and the Sunni tribes and former Baathist officials rebelling against al-Maliki’s leadership style, which Sunnis say discriminates against them.
“The problem is not ISIS,” he said, referring to the militant group's alternate name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “The problem of ISIS is an easy one to fix if you reach out to the Sunnis of Iraq, but Maliki cannot accept this. Now, we see the Kurdish region with its population of 5 million borders an Islamic state of 12 million. Maliki needs to look for a political solution to give the Sunni people a reason to abandon this ISIS project or nobody will be safe.”
Already Iraq is showing signs of returning to the dark days of sectarian strife that shredded the country from 2005 to 2009.
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch released what it said was satellite imagery that confirmed ISIL claims to have executed large numbers of captured Iraqi army troops after it took control of Tikrit. The organization did not confirm ISIL's claim that 1,700 Shiite soldiers had been killed.
But it said the images showed two grave sites that may hold 160 to 190 bodies. One of the mass graves consisted of two trenches that had been dug near a former palace of Saddam’s next to the Tigris River, Human Rights Watch said. The location of the third trench has not been pinpointed.
In Baghdad on Friday, at least nine bodies of Sunni men who bore signs of torture before being executed were found on the outskirts of the Sadr City neighborhood, a Shiite area infamous for high levels of militia activity.