Iraq launches push for militant- held northern city
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi troops backed by helicopter gunships launched an operation early Saturday aimed at dislodging Sunni militants from the northern city of Tikrit, one of two major urban centers they seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country.
After watching much of Iraq slip out of government hands, military officials sought to portray the push that began before dawn as a significant step that puts the army back on the offensive. They said the operation includes commandos, tanks and helicopters, as well as pro-government Sunni fighters and Shiite volunteers.
Tikrit residents reported clashes on the outskirts of the city and to the south, but the extent of the fighting was unclear.
Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the Salahuddin Operation Command, said the immediate objective is Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein and one of two major cities to fall to the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and allied Sunni militants. He said there was no concrete timeline for the operation to conclude.
Helicopter gunships conducted airstrikes before dawn on insurgents who were attacking troops at a university campus on Tikrit's northern outskirts, Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Government troops established a bridgehead on the sprawling campus early Friday after being ferried in by helicopter.
A senior security official said there were sporadic clashes around the University of Tikrit, as well as south of the city. Iraqi forces, which are moving north toward Tikrit from the shrine city of Samarra, are making slow progress, he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Tikrit residents reached by telephone confirmed that air raids took place at the university around dawn Saturday.