Iraqi government forces began a push Saturday to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Sunni militants.
The heavily Sunni city, notable as the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, was captured by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on June 11. According to a BBC report, Iraqi soldiers controlled portions of the University of Tikrit campus, in the northern part of the city, after an operation Friday.
“ISIS fighters now have two choices — flee or be killed,” Iraqi Lt. Gen. Sabah Fatlawi told the AFP news agency, according to the BBC.
The Associated Press also reported air strikes hit the area around the university campus and locations further south. The government’s offensive was launched from the nearby city of Samarra, where the military had previously halted the militants’ advance.
“Tikrit has become a ghost town because a lot of people left over the past 72 hours, fearing random aerial bombardment and possible clashes as the army advances toward the city,” Muhanad Saif al-Din, a resident of the city, told the AP. “The few people who remain are afraid of possible revenge acts by Shiite militiamen who are accompanying the army. We are peaceful civilians and we do not want to be victims of this struggle.”
Bloomberg spoke with an Iraqi official about the campaign, which it noted was “the first concerted effort by ground forces” to push back against ISIS since its advances earlier this month. The official, Jawad Al-Bolani, said that the government troops in Tikrit were supported by around 7,000 Sunni tribesmen as well as American intelligence.
But Al-Bolani’s take differed from those in the city. Where the official said that “Iraqi forces are achieving victory and making significant progress,” a resident of Tikrit told Bloomberg that the military’s “progress is very slow” after losing “many Humvees and tanks.”
One ISIS supporter tweeted claims of “disaster” for the government:
— Abdallaah (@mujaahid4life) June 28, 2014
The BBC reported that Tikrit had largely emptied since becoming a flashpoint between the militants and government.
President Barack Obama earlier announced that 300 advisors would be sent to Iraq to support Baghdad’s effort against the militants. Reports this week indicated that U.S. drones had begun flying in the country to defend American assets.
“The reason that some of those aircraft are armed is primarily for force protection reasons now that we have introduced into the country some military advisers whose objective will be to operate outside the confines of the embassy,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Friday.
In a separate development, influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani pushed for a new prime minister to be named when Iraqi leaders come together to decide early next week. Many have blamed current, and long-serving, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the sectarian divisions that led to ISIS’s rise, and Sistani’s support for a replacement may be a key tipping point.
While Maliki’s removal would be crucial, it might also be too late to stop Iraq from breaking apart. The success or failure of the military’s offensive in Tikrit will likely be as important to building — or halting — that political momentum.