By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff
IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi army commandos and Iranian-trained Shiite Muslim militias pressed their first significant counteroffensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Friday, battling Sunni insurgents in rebel-held Tikrit after a dramatic helicopter assault into the town Thursday afternoon.
The assault’s stakes are high for Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose army has been in headlong retreat for nearly three weeks as ISIS and its tribal allies captured the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, besieged its largest refinery at Baiji and threatened its biggest military base at Balad. Recapturing Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s hometown — would be a major boost ahead of the start of next week’s parliamentary session. Defeat would be disaster.
The initial assault on Thursday involved commandos from a unit that reports directly to al-Maliki. They were airlifted aboard three helicopters to Tikrit University’s stadium, where they were met with heavy fire from ISIS. At least one of the helicopters was shot down.
The commandos managed in all-night fighting to take control of tall buildings near the stadium, according to witnesses and local residents. On Friday, they were reinforced by militiamen believed to be members of the Shiite group Asiab al-Haq, an Iranian-trained militia with extensive experience fighting in Iraq against the U.S.-led occupation and in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar Assad, which faces its own Sunni rebel uprising. Reports indicated the commandos and militia members were battling to expand their perimeter late Friday, with uncertain results.
Massive desertions in recent weeks have crippled Iraq’s American-trained and -equipped military, making it ineffective in countering ISIS fighters, who’ve teamed up with Sunni tribes and former officers from Saddam’s Baath Party to storm within a handful of miles of Baghdad. ISIS fighters have essentially cut off the capital from neighboring Jordan and Syria by seizing villages and cities along highways north and west of Baghdad.
It remained unclear Friday whether the government forces would succeed in taking back Tikrit, which fell to the advancing insurgents June 11. The Defense Ministry in Baghdad offered no comment on the fighting.
Witnesses interviewed by local television and rebroadcast by international satellite television channels described the fighting as dramatic in a city where opposition to the Maliki government has been intense and the ISIS invaders were greeted as rescuers.
Ahmed al-Jubbour, a professor at the university’s college of agriculture, said in an interview later replayed on Al-Jazeera that he had witnessed battles for control of the university’s colleges of agriculture and sports education.
“I saw one of the helicopters land opposite the university and I saw clashes between dozens of militants and government forces,” he said.
The arrival of ISIS reinforcements at the stadium Friday was followed by air attacks on areas around Tikrit, which were shown on videos uploaded to the Internet. They showed damage from what residents said were crude barrel bombs, which generally cannot be aimed effectively at military targets and are commonly used by the government in Syria against rebel-held areas.
The video showed at least one helicopter being shot down by militant gunfire on Friday afternoon and fixed-wing aircraft dropping bombs on neighborhoods near the university. The Iraqi air force has no jet aircraft and its so-called strike capability is believed limited to a pair of single-engine Cessna aircraft capable of firing Hellfire missiles.
“They dropped barrel bombs here, we were home and all of a sudden two blasts took place. There is no one here. No militants here in the region,” one resident said in video broadcast by Al-Jazeera.
AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye
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