Iraqi government troops and allied militiamen have launched a major operation to retake the city of Tikrit from Sunni militants.
“The Iraqi army and (Shi’ite) volunteers, backed by Iraqi helicopters, are taking part” in the operation to retake the hometown of executed former president Saddam Hussein, a high-ranking army officer said on Tuesday.
He said the military push started early in the morning from the south and southwest of the city, which lies around 160 kilometres north of the capital, Baghdad.
The operation came as jihadists were busy on other fronts further north, where resurgent Kurdish pershmerga forces, buoyed by Western arms deliveries and US airstrikes, have gone on the offensive.
Jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who had already occupied parts of Syria, launched an offensive in Iraq on June 9 and soon took over much of the country’s Sunni heartland.
Tikrit fell on June 11 and has since been controlled mostly by Sunni militant groups, including former members of Saddam’s ruling Baath party.
Iraqi government forces, which folded when jihadist-led militants swept across five provinces more than two months ago, have made Tikrit one of the main targets of their fightback.
The army, with the support of Shi’ite volunteers, have tried and failed twice to take back Tikrit.
Meanwhile Kurdish fighters, backed by Iraqi forces and a new wave of US air strikes, have pressed their offensive against jihadist rebels as President Barack Obama urged a joint counterterrorism effort.
Obama on Monday hailed the Kurds’ recapture of a major dam outside Mosul but warned Baghdad that “the wolf is at the door” and said it must move quickly to build an inclusive government.
Securing the dam was the biggest prize yet clawed back from the so-called “Islamic State” since it launched a major offensive in northern Iraq in June, sweeping aside Iraqi security forces.
“Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead on the ground and performed with courage and determination,” Obama said, warning that the dam would have devastated cities downstream had it been breached.
“So this operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight to ISIL.
“If they continue to do so, they will have the strong support of the United States of America,” he promised, in his clearest signal yet that the 10-day-old US air campaign against IS is far from over.
Obama said that Iraq’s new premier Haidar al-Abadi should rush to build an inclusive government to undercut support for extremists and underpin international action against the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL or ISIS.
“We will continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against ISIL by supporting the new Iraqi government and working with key partners in the region,” he said.
US military aircraft have carried out 35 air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq over the past three days, destroying more than 90 targets, the Pentagon said.
The strikes marked the most intensive US bombardments of IS positions since they began on August 8.