The US military says it has deployed armed manned and unmanned aircraft over Iraq to protect its soldiers, and may consider targeting “high value individuals”.
US President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to battle the Isis insurgency but has sent up to 300 advisers, mostly special forces, to help the Iraqi government in its struggle.
The Pentagon said some of the drones and manned aircraft it was flying over Iraq were armed, but that they would be used to gather intelligence and ensure the safety of US personnel on the ground, rather than carrying out air strikes.
General Martin Dempsey, the top US military officer, told US National Public Radio that “additional options” for potential future US military actions in Iraq included going after “high value individuals who are the leadership of Isil [Isis]” and working to protect Iraq’s “critical infrastructure.”
Iraqi helicopters fired on a university campus on Friday in Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein. It is the second major city to fall to insurgents more than a fortnight, and government forces launched an airborne assault on the campus on Thursday in a rare push back into rebel-held territory.
Helicopters also fired on the emergency department of the hospital, said a doctor, although there was no word on casualties.
Most of the fighting in Iraq has been north of Baghdad, but on Friday, six mortar rounds were fired on the Shi’ite town of Mahmoudiya which lies 19 miles south of the capital, killing eight people.
Human Rights Watch said that analysis of photographs and satellite imagery indicated Isis had killed as many as 190 men in at least two locations over three days after they captured Tikrit. The death toll may be much higher, but the difficulty of locating bodies and getting to the area had prevented a full investigation, it said.
But there have also been accounts of government forces killing large numbers of prisoners. Police officials told Reuters 69 prisoners had been killed on Monday while being transported from a jail in Hilla south of Baghdad. Last week 52 prisoners were killed in a jail in Baquba to the north.
Amnesty International also said it had gathered evidence pointing to a pattern of extrajudicial executions of detainees carried out by government forces before withdrawing from cities, including Tal Afar, west of Mosul, which militants now control.
Fighters from Isis have been joined by other, less radical groups who share their view that Sunnis have been persecuted under Maliki. The fighting has been halted outside the capital, but militants have continued to advance and consolidate their gains elsewhere, including the area around Mosul in northwestern Iraq, which is home to many religious and ethnic minorities.