BAGHDAD: Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) pushed back against a fresh government assault on the Iraqi city of Tikrit, hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, officials and residents said Tuesday.
The government attempt to retake Tikrit came as U.S. planes carried out renewed airstrikes around the Mosul dam, captured by Kurdish forces Monday.
The clashes in Tikrit, some 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, began on the militant-held city’s southwestern outskirts when a military convoy was travelling along the main highway that links Baghdad with the northern provinces. The Iraqi military shelled militant positions inside and outside the city. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
“The Iraqi army and [Shiite] volunteers, backed by Iraqi helicopters, are taking part” in the operation, a high-ranking army officer told AFP.
But the offensive stalled later Tuesday and security forces pulled back from the city, witnesses said.
South of Tikrit, government forces came under heavy machine-gun and mortar fire from the militants, officers told Reuters. To the west, landmines and snipers frustrated efforts to get closer to the city center.
Residents of central Tikrit said by telephone that ISIS fighters were firmly in control of their positions and patrolling the main streets.
Fighters from ISIS have occupied Tikrit and the northern city of Mosul since early June, as well as large parts of the country’s north and west. The government, whose forces folded when jihadist-led militants swept across five provinces, has made Tikrit a priority but has already failed twice to retake it.
Iraqi army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said that a “slow and gradual” push to retake areas around Tikrit was underway, an effort he described as “biting back the land.”
Moussawi said security forces had dismantled more than 40 bombs in the area.“There are still a lot of challenges and difficulties ahead of us,” he said in a live briefing aired on state TV. “The war needs time, but we are determined to annihilate the Islamic State and to liberate all the areas they occupy, even if we suffer heavy causalities, because we have no other choice.”
Iraqi and Kurdish forces recaptured the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq Monday, less than two weeks after it was seized by the militants.
Fighting erupted Tuesday in the area surrounding the dam and U.S. warplanes carried out fresh strikes targeting ISIS, a senior officer in the Kurdish peshmerga forces told AFP.
U.S. experts have warned a breach of the dam could result in a flood wave 20 meters tall to the south of the city of Mosul and cause flooding along the Tigris River all the way down to Baghdad.
Moussawi Tuesday hailed the “big success and achievement” of security forces, reiterating that the dam “is now under security forces’ full control.”
Also Tuesday, Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi issued a statement praising security forces as “heroes” for confronting “the terrorist gangs.” He also called on security forces to ensure “precise targeting” so as not to hit civilians.
In a separate development, ISIS released a video purportedly showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, who had gone missing in Syria nearly two years ago.
The video, titled “A Message To America,” was posted on social media sites. The video also claimed militants held U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff and said his life depended on U.S. President Barack Obama’s next move. It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the video.