Armed U.S. drones have started flying over Baghdad
Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) — Iraqi security forces retook the city of Tikrit on Saturday, a local tribal leader and state media said, as they went on the offensive against the Sunni extremist militants who have seized swaths of northern and western Iraq.
Sheikh Khamis al-Joubouri, a key tribal leader in Tikrit, told CNN that the Iraqi security forces entered the city supported by special forces and fighters from among the local tribes, and had gained control.
He said that fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) retreated in the direction of Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces.
However, amid claim and counter-claim, a combatant told a CNN freelance reporter that ISIS fighters remained in control of Tikrit, but that there are fierce clashes in an area about 20 kilometers from the city center, toward Samarra.
State-run Iraqiya TV reported that the Iraqi army and volunteer militia groups had cleared ISIS fighters from what was former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
The Iraqi army forces, equipped with tanks and backed up by the Iraqi air force, advanced on the city from four directions, the station said, citing the Salaheddin Military Command.
Sabah Numan, a Counter Terrorism Unit spokesman, told the station that 120 militants had been killed and 20 vehicles destroyed in a large scale operation that began Saturday morning.
“We are mainly busy defusing booby-trapped houses and cars on the main roads leading into Tikrit,” he said.
CNN cannot independently confirm the reports.
Al-Joubouri said that the tribes were not aligned with the government or with ISIS and had stayed out of the fight until now.
But, he said, when ISIS fighters who arrived in Tikrit robbed banks and carried out executions, as well as bringing the local economy to a standstill, the tribal leaders offered their help to the Iraqi security forces poised outside the city.
The tribal leaders shared their knowledge of the city, including routes and known ISIS positions, he said.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch reported that two mass graves believed to contain the bodies of Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians killed by ISIS and their militant allies had been discovered in Tikrit.
Iraq’s air force also targeted locations held by in the northern city of Mosul with airstrikes Saturday morning, a senior Iraqi military official told CNN.
The official, who could not be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the strikes were carried out by Iraqi jet fighters firing Hellfire missiles.
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Seven civilians were killed in Mosul’s Bashtabia neighborhood and two were injured, according to Dr. Salaheldin Al-Naimi, general director of the Health Directorate of Nineveh province.
Iraq’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, told a news briefing Saturday that Iraq’s forces had regained the upper hand against ISIS and were now being supported by the tribes.
“We are advancing in all our fights,” he said.
Atta said that a total of 125 ISIS fighters had been killed across Iraq in multiple operations, with 57 vehicles destroyed and 96 attack sorties flown by the air force.
In one setback for the military, seven Iraqi soldiers were killed and 29 others were wounded on Saturday in clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS at a military base in the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, about 85 kilometers (53 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraqi security officials said.
‘Baghdad is safe’
ISIS has taken over swaths of northern and western Iraq in its quest to create an Islamic state stretching from Syria to Iraq. And the crisis has embroiled countries around the world.
Armed U.S. drones have started flying over Baghdad to provide additional protection for 180 U.S. military advisers in the area, a U.S. official told CNN on Friday.
But using the drones for any offensive strikes against ISIS would require approval from U.S. President Barack Obama.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in a speech during a visit Friday to the Baghdad Operations Command, insisted the capital was not in danger.
“We have an army to respond to the catastrophe that has occurred, and Baghdad is safe and cannot be exposed to instability,” he said, according to a statement released by his office.
“We will punish anyone making problems in the city of Baghdad.”
The Prime Minister, who is widely blamed for fostering sectarian division, is under pressure to allow the formation of an inclusive government. Iraq’s newly elected Parliament is due to meet on Tuesday.
Mass graves, executions
Meanwhile, reports continue to emerge of atrocities committed by both sides.
Besides the reported Tikrit executions, Human Rights Watch said Saturday that ISIS fighters kidnapped at least 40 Shia Turkmen, dynamited four Shia places of worship, and ransacked homes and farms in two Shia villages just outside Mosul, citing displaced residents and local activists and journalists.
The few Sunni villagers who remained told those who fled that at least some of the kidnapped men had been killed, the rights group said. However, they had not seen bodies and could not give more information.
ISIS destroyed seven Shia places of worship in the predominantly Shia Turkmen city of Tal Afar, about 30 miles west of Mosul, earlier in the week, Human Rights Watch added, citing local sources.
“The ISIS rampage is part of a long pattern of attack by armed Sunni extremists on Turkmen and other minorities,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The killing, bombing, and pillaging threatens to displace entire communities, possibly forever.”
The two villages, Guba and Shireekhan, were initially seized by ISIS on June 10, during their advance on Mosul.
On Friday, Amnesty International said it had gathered evidence pointing to a pattern of “extrajudicial executions” of Sunni detainees by government forces and Shiite militias in the northern cities of Tal Afar, Mosul and Baquba.
“Reports of multiple incidents where Sunni detainees have been killed in cold blood while in the custody of Iraqi forces are deeply alarming,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, who is in northern Iraq.
“The killings suggest a worrying pattern of reprisal attacks against Sunnis in retaliation for ISIS.”
Kurdish crossings closed
The government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region has closed crossings from Irbil and Duhuk to Mosul, spokesman Gen. Hilgord Hikmet told CNN on Saturday.
This means that no one can now cross from Mosul into the Kurdish region, he said. Refugees can go back to Mosul but will not be able to reenter the Kurdish region.
“This measure is taken to preserve security and for the region’s stability,” he said.
Hikmet said the step had been prompted by a car bomb two days ago that killed and injured some members of the Kurdish fighting force known as the Peshmerga.
Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish region’s president, said on Friday that disputed areas of northern Iraq, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, will from now on be part of the Kurdish autonomous region, after Iraq’s central government failed to hold a long-awaited referendum.
“We have waited for more than 10 years for the Iraqi federal government to address and solve the issue of these areas … but it was to no avail,” Barzani said at a joint press conference with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague in Irbil.
Under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, drawn up two years after Saddam Hussein was ousted, several disputed areas such as Kirkuk and small villages in Nineveh, Diyala and Salaheddin provinces, claimed by both the central government and the Kurdistan regional government, are to be determined by a referendum.
The vote never took place due to instability in most of these disputed areas.
More than a week ago, when the Iraqi army withdrew from Kirkuk, the Peshmerga took control of the city, as well as many of the disputed villages.