As Iraqi forces - under the leadership of embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - ready a major offensive to counterattack radical Sunni militants and local armed men, the army reasserted control over the small town of Ishaqi in the Salah al-Din province north of the capital.
Claiming control over Ishaqi, southeast of the city of Samarra, will enable the Iraqi government to secure a road that links the city to Baghdad and the cities of Tikrit and Mosul further north.
Using Samarra as their launch pad, Iraqi forces are aiming to reclaim Tikrit, the hometown of late leader Saddam Hussein, and districts of Beiji and al-Dour, which are also located in the Sunni-majority province, an Iraqi security source told Al Arabiya News Channel.
Samarra is one of the cities targeted - though not seized - by the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group who now prevail in a string of Sunni-majority cities and towns running south from Mosul.
ISIS, coupled with local rebels wanting an end to Maliki’s rule as well as Baathists, shocked Iraq’s government when they took over the country’s second largest city of Mosul earlier this week.
Maliki visits Samarra
In a visit to the city of Samarra, Maliki vowed to rout the insurgents, whose onslaught puts the future of Iraq as a unified state in question and raised the specter of sectarian conflict.
Meanwhile, Militants attacked the convoy of the custodian of a Shiite holy shrine in Samarra, while he was en route to Baghdad. Sheikh Haider al-Yaqoobi was unharmed, but 10 of his guards were killed, a source in Samarra hospital told Reuters.
“Samarra will not be the last line of defense, but a gathering point and launch pad,” Maliki told military officers after Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric urged people to take up arms and defend the country against the insurgents.
“Within the coming hours, all the volunteers will arrive to support the security forces in their war against the gangs of ISIS. This is the beginning of the end of them,” Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, said in comments broadcast on Iraqi television.
More attacks on militants
An Iraqi military official meanwhile said an air raid on Mataibeekh in Tikrit has killed 50 members from al-Baath party.
Security sources also told Reuters that the Iraqi troops attacked an ISIS group formation in the town of al-Mutasim, 22 km southeast of Samarra, driving militants out into the surrounding desert on Saturday.
Troops backed by the Shiite Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia helped retake the town of Muqdadiya northeast of Baghdad and ISIS was dislodged from Dhuluiya after three hours of fighting with tribesmen, local police and residents said.
In Udhaim, 90 km north of Baghdad, Asaib and police fought militants who earlier occupied the local municipal building, an official there told Reuters, and they directed mortar fire at the government protection force of the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in Iraq.
Militants in control of Tikrit, 45km north of Samarra, planted landmines and roadside bombs at the city’s entrances, apparently anticipating a counter-attack by government forces.
Residents said the militants deployed across the city and moved anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery into position.
Families began to flee north in the direction of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city which Kurdish forces occupied on Thursday after the Iraqi army fled.
“We have regained the initiative and will not stop at liberating Mosul from ISIS terrorists, but all other parts,” said Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military’s commander-in-chief, pointing out areas the army had retaken on a map with a laser pen.
Iraq’s ministerial council has gave Maliki unlimited powers to act against the militants. While Iraqi parliamentary elections were over in April 30, official results are not out yet.
Masked jihadists under the black flag of ISIS aim to revive a medieval Islamic caliphate that would span a fragmented Iraq and Syria, redrawing borders set by European colonial powers a century ago and menacing neighbors like Iran and Turkey.
Tribal sheikh hails ‘revolutions’
The head of the al-Dulaim tribes in the province of Anbar, Ali al-Hatim urged Iraq’s political parties and blocs to unseat Maliki, and to immediately form a transitional government to “save” the country.
“We urge you not to allow terrorism with all of its kinds to taint the picture of this revolution, because Maliki and whoever is with him want to label it as terrorism,” Hatim said in a video statement published online.
“Our revolution started to reclaim rights and not to take vengeance, and we warn of infiltrators.”
He added: “We are all against ISIS and government’s militias.”
He accused Maliki of using the state’s weaponry to “exterminate” people in Sunni provinces.
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an aircraft carrier to be moved into the Gulf on Saturday, readying it in case Washington decides to pursue a military option in Iraq.
(With Reuters)SHOW MORE