Iraq’s army sent tanks and armoured vehicles to try to dislodge insurgents from the northern city of Tikrit on Sunday, the second day of a pushback against a Sunni militant takeover of large stretches of Iraq.
In Baghdad, which is threatened by the rebel advance, top Shia, Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers scrambled to agree to cabinet nominations before parliament meets on Tuesday to try to prevent the rebel advance jeopardising Iraq’s future as a unitary state.
They are racing against time as Sunni insurgents led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda offshoot that loathes Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government, consolidate their grip on the north and west. Maliki’s political future after eight years in power will be the most contentious issue.
Troops backed by helicopter gunships began an assault on Tikrit, the birthplace of former President Saddam Hussein, on Saturday, to try to take it back from insurgents who have swept to within driving range of Baghdad.
The army sent in tanks and helicopters to battle ISIL militants near the University of Tikrit in the city’s north on Sunday, security sources said. Two witnesses said they saw a helicopter gunned down over northern Tikrit.
The offensive was the first major attempt by the army to retake territory after the United States sent up to 300 advisers, mostly special forces, and drones to help the government take on ISIL.
Earlier on Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussain al-Shahristani, one of Iraq’s most senior politicians, faulted the US for not doing enough to bolster the country’s military, just hours after Russia delivered five Sukhoi jets.
“Yes, there has been a delay from the Americans in handing over contracted arms. We told them, ‘You once did an air bridge to send arms to your ally Israel, so why don’t you give us the contracted arms in time?’” he told al-Hurra television.
US officials have disputed similar statements from Iraqi officials in the past and say they have done everything possible to ensure the country is equipped with modern weaponry.