Baghdad, June 28 (Reuters): Iraqi government forces backed by helicopter gunships began an offensive today to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Sunni Islamist militants while party leaders pursued talks that could end Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's divisive rule.
Iraqi troops were trying to advance on Tikrit from the direction of Samarra to the south that has become the military’s line in the sand against a militant advance southwards to within an hour's drive of Baghdad.
Iraqi special forces already have snipers inside Tikrit University who were dropped by air there in a bold operation on Thursday.
Helicopter gunships fired at targets in Tikrit today and ISIS fighters abandoned Tikrit’s governorate building, security sources said. More government troops had been air-dropped in a pocket just north of the city.
Iraqi military spokesman Qassim Atta told reporters in Baghdad today that 29 “terrorists” were killed yesterday in Tikrit and that militant commanders were struggling because “their morale has started to collapse.”
However, the militants were showing resilience and enjoyed the backing of some local Sunni tribes, as well as former ruling Baathists from the era of late Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein — whose hometown was Tikrit — alienated from Maliki’s government.
Since early June, the radical ISIS have overrun most majority Sunni areas in the north and west of Iraq, capturing the biggest northern city Mosul and fanning southwards. ISIS vows to re-create a medieval-style caliphate erasing borders from the Mediterranean to the Gulf and they deem all Shias to be heretics deserving death.