BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces repelled an assault by militants Wednesday on the highly sensitive city of Samarra, witnesses said.
Samarra is home to a revered Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006, sparking a sectarian conflict between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni Arab minority that left tens of thousands dead.
It lies just 110 kilometres (70 miles) north of Baghdad on the main highway from the country's second city Mosul, which jihadists seized on Tuesday.
Witnesses said militants arrived in trucks mounted with machineguns, and a policeman said his unit was battling them at the northwest entrance to Samarra.
Iraqiya state television reported that security forces carried out air strikes against them, though it was unclear whether helicopters or planes were used.
Witnesses later said the clashes ended without the militants entering the city.
It was not immediately clear what became of the attackers, but it was a local victory for security forces that have largely been swept aside by a major offensive spearheaded by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.
The offensive, which began late on Monday, has since overrun all of Nineveh province and its capital, Mosul, as well as parts of Kirkuk to its southeast and Salaheddin to its south.
Militants seized Salaheddin provincial capital Tikrit earlier on Wednesday, and witnesses subsequently said gunmen were also in full control of the Dur and Oja areas between it and Samarra.