Iraqi helicopters fired on a university campus in Tikrit on Friday to dislodge insurgents who overran the city in an onslaught that has given them control of most majority Sunni regions and brought them close to Baghdad.
Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, fell a fortnight ago to Sunnis led by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which split from al-Qaeda.
A rights group said analysis of photographs and satellite imagery “strongly indicate” that ISIL staged mass executions in Tikrit after seizing it on June 11 early in offensive.
ISIL killed as many as 190 men in at least two locations over three days, Human Rights Watch said. Numbers may be much higher but the difficulty of locating bodies and getting to the area had prevented a full investigation, it added.
Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on Tikrit on Thursday, flying commandos into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after coming under fire from insurgents.
“My family and I left early this morning. We could hear gunfire and helicopters are striking the area,” said Farhan Ibrahim Tamimi, a professor at the university who fled Tikrit for a nearby town.
Iraq’s million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after the Sunni Muslim fighters led by ISIL launched their assault with the capture of the north’s biggest city Mosul on June 10.
ISIL emerged after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader a group then called the Islamic State in Iraq, defied the al-Qaeda leadership by moving into neighbouring Syria more than a year ago to join the civil war against President Bashar al-Assad.
The group is now fighting in both Iraq and Syria, seeking to erase the frontiers and create an Islamic caliphate stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to Iraq.
In Washington, President Barack Obama asked the US Congress Thursday to approve $500 million to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, who have been largely upstaged by the more effective ISIL forces.
In Iraq, the fighters have been halted about an hour’s drive north of Baghdad and on its western outskirts. However, they have pressed on with their advances in areas including the religiously mixed Diyala province and are consolidating their gains in northwestern Iraq.
Militants took control of six villages populated by the country’s Shia Shabak minority southeast of Mosul after clashing with Kurdish “peshmerga” forces who secure the area, according to a lawmaker and Shabak leader.