Members of the Iraqi security forces who have never left their positions stand guard at the entrance checkpoint of the Bansher district, 15 kilometers south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq June 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Emad Matti)
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Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on rebel-held Tikrit on Thursday with commandos flown into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after taking fire from insurgents who have seized northern cities.Iraq's million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant launched their assault with the capture of the north's biggest city Mosul on June 10 .But in recent days, government forces have been fighting back, relying on elite commandos flown in by helicopter to defend the country's biggest oil refinery at Baiji. The United States, which withdrew its ground forces in 2011, has ruled out sending them back but is sending up to 300 military advisers, mostly special forces troops, to help organise Baghdad's military response.The fighters have been halted about an hour's drive north of Baghdad and on its western outskirts, but have pressed on with their advances in areas like religiously mixed Diyala province north of the capital, long one of Iraq's most violent areas. Publicly, Baghdad, which operates helicopters but no jets, said its own forces carried out the air strike. But a senior Iraqi government official confirmed on condition of anonymity that the strike was mounted by Assad's air force.
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