Armed insurgents belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are reportedly advancing towards the Iraqi capital after they seized a nearby town in the eastern Diyala governorate, security sources said Friday.
The sources told Al Arabiya News Channel that ISIS militants allegedly gained control over the town of al-Mansuirya, which is only an hour away from Baghdad.
They also said battles were raging in the town between ISIS militants and forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The recent advance comes after Iraqi forces on Thursday launched an airborne assault on Tikrit and recaptured a university campus that fell under ISIS control, Reuters quoted witnesses as saying.
Meanwhile, Iraqi forces fought for a second day Friday to seize control of a strategically located university in militant-held Tikrit ahead of a full-scale assault on the city, Agence France-Presse reported officers as saying.
A police major said there were periodic clashes between security forces and Sunni Arab insurgents at Tikrit University, and that the families of school employees living in the area were fleeing.
A senior army officer said Iraqi forces were carrying out a major campaign of air strikes on militants in Tikrit to protect the forces at the university and prepare for the assault.
Troops are deployed in areas around the city in readiness, the officer said.
The battle for the university began on Thursday when troops swooped in by helicopter to the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, seized by the militants on June 11.
The university is located on the way to Baiji as well as to a military base to the north of the city that have both been overrun by militants, the officer said.
Government forces have also been fighting back, relying on elite commandos flown in by helicopter to defend the country’s biggest oil refinery at Baiji.
Iraq’s million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after Sunni fighters led by ISIS launched their assault with the capture of the north’s biggest city Mosul on June 10.
A successful operation to regain territory inside Tikrit would deliver the most serious blow yet against the insurgency which for most of the past two weeks has seemed all but unstoppable in the Sunni heartland north and west of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, prominent Shiite leaders pushed Thursday for Maliki’s removal of as parliament prepared to start work next week on putting together a new government, under intense U.S. pressure to rapidly form a united front against an unrelenting Sunni insurgent onslaught.
(With Reuters and AFP)