20 Jun 2014

Battle for Baghdad: Iraqi troops move to strike back

Iraqi forces are gathering north of Baghdad, aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive toward the capital has prompted the United States to send military advisers to the country.

US President Barack Obama offered up to 300 Americans to help coordinate the fight – but he held off granting a request for air strikes from the Shia-led government.

In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 60 miles north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis), the provincial governor, a rare Sunni supporter of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, told cheering troops they would now force Isis and its allies back.

Isis advances

A source close to Mr Maliki told Reuters that the government planned to hit back now that it had halted the advance which saw Isis seize the main northern city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, 10 days ago and sweep down along the Sunni-populated Tigris valley toward Baghdad as the US-trained army crumbled.

Governor Abdullah al-Jibouri, whose provincial capital Tikrit was overrun last week, was shown on television on Friday telling soldiers in Ishaqi, just south of Samarra: “Today we are coming in the direction of Tikrit, Sharqat and Nineveh.

“These troops will not stop,” he added, saying government forces around Samarra numbered more than 50,000.

This week, the militants’ lightning pace has slowed in the area north of the capital, home to Sunnis but also to Shias fearful of Isis, which views them as heretics to be wiped out.

Samarra has a major Shia shrine. And it was for killings of Shias in nearby Dujail that Maliki had Saddam hanged in 2006.

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Battle for Baghdad

The participation of Shia militias and tens of thousands of new Shia army volunteers has allowed the Iraqi military to rebound after mass desertions by soldiers last week allowed Isis to carve out territory where it aims to found an Islamic caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.

“The strategy has been for the last few days to have a new defence line to stop the advance of Isis,” a close ally of Mr Maliki said. “We succeeded in blunting the advance and now are trying to get back areas unnecessarily lost.”

Pockets of fighting continue. Government forces appeared to be still holding out in the sprawling Baiji oil refinery, the country’s largest, 100 km north of Samarra, residents said.

At Duluiya, between Samarra and Baghdad, residents said a helicopter strafed and rocketed a number of houses in the early morning, killing a woman. Police said they had been told by the military that the pilot had been given the wrong coordinates.

While a new reality is emerging with the key cities of Mosul and Tikrit for now out of reach for the government, Mr Obama has put US military power back at Baghdad’s disposal, while insisting he will not send ground troops back, two and half years after he ended the occupation that began in 2003.