Shia volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against the ISIS, parade down a street in Karbala. (Reuters)
Baghdad/Arbil, June 26 (Reuters): Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on rebel-held Tikrit today with commandos flown into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after taking fire from insurgents who have seized northern cities.
Eyewitnesses said battles were raging in the city, hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, which fell to Sunni Islamist fighters two weeks ago on the third day of a lightning offensive that has given them control of most majority Sunni regions.
The helicopters were shot at as they flew low over the city and landed in a stadium at the city’s university, a security source at the scene said. Government spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment and by evening the assault was still not being reported on state media.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said fierce clashes ensued, centred around the university compound.
Ahmed al-Jubbour, professor at the university’s college of agriculture, described fighting in the colleges of agriculture and sports education after three helicopters arrived.
“I saw one of the helicopters land opposite the university with my own eyes and I saw clashes between dozens of militants and government forces,” he said.
Jubbour said one helicopter crash landed in the stadium. Another left after dropping off troops and a third remained on the ground. Army snipers were positioning themselves on tall buildings in the university complex.
Iraq’s million-strong army, trained and equipped by the US, largely evaporated in the north after Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched their assault with the capture of the north’s biggest city Mosul on June 10.
But in recent days, government forces have been fighting back, relying on elite commandos flown in by helicopter to defend the country’s biggest oil refinery at Baiji.
A successful operation to recapture territory inside Tikrit would deliver the most serious blow yet against an insurgency which for most of the past two weeks has seemed all but unstoppable in the Sunni heartland north and west of Baghdad.
The ISIS-led advance has put the US on the same side as its enemy of 35 years Iran, West Asia’s main Shia power, as well as Iran’s ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is fighting ISIS in his country.
Locals in the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim, captured by ISIS several days ago, say Syrian jets carried out strikes against militants on the Iraqi side of the frontier this week, marking the first time Assad’s air forces have come to Baghdad’s aid.
King Abdullah ordered all necessary measures to protect Saudi Arabia against potential ”terrorist threats” after chairing a security meeting to discuss the fall-out from Iraq, the state news agency SPA said today.