Iraq begins counter offensive in Tikrit
Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country.Many of the residents have already fled the city in anticipation of the fight. This should be an interesting test of both sides. Can the al Qaeda group defend its gains and dig in and can the government actually stage a meaningful offensive? Government forces to date have not been effective on the defensive. B y going on the offense now, they may disrupt the enemy's plans for a siege of Baghdad.
After watching much of Iraq slip out of government hands, military officials sought to portray the push that began before dawn as a significant step that puts the army back on the offensive. They said the operation includes commandos, tanks and helicopters, as well as pro-government Sunni fighters and Shiite volunteers.
Tikrit residents reported clashes in the city, but the extent of the fighting was unclear.
Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the Salahuddin Operation Command, said the immediate objective is Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein and one of two major cities to fall in recent weeks to the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and allied Sunni militants. He said there was no concrete timeline for the operation to conclude.
Helicopter gunships conducted airstrikes before dawn on insurgents who were attacking troops at a university campus on Tikrit's northern outskirts, Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Government troops established a bridgehead on the sprawling campus early Friday after being ferried in by helicopter.
A Tikrit resident confirmed that air raids took place at the University of Tikrit around dawn Saturday. He reported clashes between the Islamic State and Iraqi forces to the southeast as well, but said militants are still patrolling the city. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.