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Iraq helicopters fire on university campus in Tikrit

Militants from the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) with captured Iraqi soldiers wearing plain clothes after taking over a base in Tikrit, Iraq June 14, 2014. (AP Photo via militant website)

BAGHDAD: Iraqi helicopters fired on a university campus in Tikrit Friday to dislodge insurgents who overran the city in an onslaught that has given them control of most majority Sunni regions and brought them close to Baghdad.

Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, fell a fortnight ago to Sunnis led by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which split from Al-Qaeda.

A rights group said that analysis of photographs and satellite imagery "strongly indicate" that ISIS staged mass executions in Tikrit after seizing it on June 11 early in their offensive.

ISIS killed as many as 190 men in at least two locations over three days, Human Rights Watch said. Numbers may be much higher but the difficulty of locating bodies and getting to the area had prevented a full investigation, it added.

Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on Tikrit Thursday, flying commandos into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after coming under fire from insurgents.

"My family and I left early this morning. We could hear gunfire and helicopters are striking the area," said Farhan Ibrahim Tamimi, a professor at the university who fled Tikrit for a nearby town.

Iraq's million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after the Sunni Muslim fighters led by ISIS launched their assault with the capture of the north's biggest city Mosul on June 10.

ISIS emerged after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader a group then called the Islamic State in Iraq, defied the Al-Qaeda leadership by moving into neighboring Syria more than a year ago to join the civil war against President Bashar Assad.

The group is now fighting in both Iraq and Syria, seeking to erase the frontiers and create an Islamic caliphate stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to Iraq.

In Washington, President Barack Obama asked the U.S. Congress Thursday to approve $500 million to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, who have been largely upstaged by the more effective ISIS forces.

In Iraq, the fighters have been halted about an hour's drive north of Baghdad and on its western outskirts. However, they have pressed on with their advances in areas including the religiously mixed Diyala province and are consolidating their gains in northwestern Iraq.

Militants took control of six villages populated by the country's Shiite Shabak minority southeast of Mosul after clashing with Kurdish "peshmerga" forces who secure the area, according to a lawmaker and Shabak leader.

A new Iraqi parliament elected two months ago is set to meet Tuesday to begin the process of forming a government that the United States and other countries hope will be inclusive enough to blunt the insurgency.

Fighters from ISIS - which says all Shiite Muslims are heretics who should be killed - have been helped in their advance by other, less radical groups who share their view that Sunnis have been persecuted under the Shiite-led government.

Washington hopes that armed Sunni tribal groups, which turned against Al-Qaeda during the U.S. "surge" offensive of 2006-2007, can again be persuaded to switch sides and back the government, provided that a new cabinet is more inclusive.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April election but needs allies to form a cabinet.

Maliki confirmed this week that he would abide by the constitutional deadlines to set up a new government, after pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew to Baghdad for crisis talks earlier this week.

Under the official schedule, parliament will have 30 days from when it first meets Tuesday to name a president and 15 days after that to name a prime minister.

In the past the process has dragged out, taking nine months to seat the government in 2010. Any delays would allow Maliki to continue to serve as caretaker.

The 64-year-old Shiite Islamist is fighting for his political life in the face of an assault that threatens to dismember his country. Sunni, Kurdish and rival Shiite groups have demanded he leave office, and some ruling party members have suggested he could be replaced with a less polarizing figure, although close allies say he has no plan to step aside.

 

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Summary

Iraqi helicopters fired on a university campus in Tikrit Friday to dislodge insurgents who overran the city in an onslaught that has given them control of most majority Sunni regions and brought them close to Baghdad.

Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, fell a fortnight ago to Sunnis led by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which split from Al-Qaeda.

ISIS killed as many as 190 men in at least two locations over three days, Human Rights Watch said.

Iraq's million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after the Sunni Muslim fighters led by ISIS launched their assault with the capture of the north's biggest city Mosul on June 10 .

ISIS emerged after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader a group then called the Islamic State in Iraq, defied the Al-Qaeda leadership by moving into neighboring Syria more than a year ago to join the civil war against President Bashar Assad.


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