BAGHDAD: Iraq’s army sent tanks and armored vehicles to try to dislodge insurgents from the northern city of Tikrit Sunday, the second day of a pushback against a Sunni militant takeover of large swaths of Iraq.
In Baghdad, top Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers scrambled to agree Cabinet nominations before parliament meets Tuesday to try to prevent the rebel advance jeopardizing Iraq’s future as a unitary state.
They are racing against time as Sunni insurgents led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Al-Qaeda offshoot that loathes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, consolidate their grip on the north and west.
Troops backed by helicopter gunships Saturday began an assault on Tikrit, the birthplace of former President Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to take it back from insurgents who have swept to within driving range of Baghdad.
The army sent in tanks and helicopters to battle ISIS militants near the University of Tikrit in the city’s north Sunday, security sources said. Two witnesses said they saw a helicopter gunned down over northern Tikrit, reports not possible to immediately verify independently.
The offensive was the first major attempt by the army to retake territory after the U.S. sent up to 300 advisers, mostly special forces, and drones to help the government take on ISIS.
Earlier Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussain al-Shahristani faulted the U.S. for not doing enough to bolster the country’s military, just hours after Russia delivered five Sukhoi jets.
“Yes, there has been a delay from the Americans in handing over contracted arms. We told them, ‘You once did an air bridge to send arms to your ally Israel, so why don’t you give us the contracted arms in time?’” he told al-Hurra television.
U.S. officials have disputed similar statements from Iraqi officials and say they have done everything possible to ensure the country is equipped with modern weaponry.
In the latest sign of diplomatic one-upmanship, the five Russian Sukhoi jets were delivered to Baghdad late Saturday. State television said the aircraft “would be used in the coming days to strike ISIS terrorist groups.”
Iraq has relied largely on helicopters to counter militants and has few aircraft that are capable of firing advanced missiles.
Iraqi army spokesman Qassim Atta told reporters in Baghdad that security forces had killed 142 “terrorists” over the last 24 hours across Iraq, including 70 in Tikrit, and said the armed forces were in control of Tikrit’s university. Neither claim was immediately verifiable.“Our security forces have taken complete control of the University of Tikrit and they have raised the Iraqi flag on top of the building,” Atta said.
Iran has also supported Iraq’s government against the onslaught. An Iranian general said Sunday that his country was ready to help Iraq fight the revolt using the same methods it deployed against rebels in Syria.
“With Syria, too, we announced we would not allow terrorists in the hire of foreign intelligence services to rule and dictate to Syrian people. We will certainly have the same approach with Iraq,” Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri, deputy joint chief of staff of the armed forces and a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer, told Iran’s al-Alam television.
The clashes have taken their toll on civilians. At least four people were killed, including two women, when helicopters struck a gathering of people preparing for a wedding ceremony in Al Bu Hayazi, a village east of Tikrit Saturday evening, witnesses and relatives of the victims said.
“Families were gathering to start a wedding party and rockets started to hit houses. ... The wedding became a funeral after the death of innocent people. My cousin was among those killed,” Hatam Ali, a government employee at Tikrit university, told Reuters.
The military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the incident.
Meanwhile, politicians are under pressure to speed up the normally sluggish process of selecting a new government to face the crisis. A parliament elected in April is due to assemble Tuesday to begin the process.
But the 21-seat bloc of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, said it would skip the session, arguing more time was needed to avoid repeating the previous government’s mistakes.
Politicians from the National Alliance, the biggest bloc, said they would join the session and seek to follow the timetable for the formation, but were tight-lipped about who they would back for prime minister. A senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Adnan Mufti, said it would attend.
It took nearly 10 months for Maliki to build a coalition to stay in office after the last election in 2010, and pressure for a quick process this time could hasten the end of his rule.