Iraqi forces pressed a counterattack on former leader Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit yesterday as Russia delivered Sukhoi warplanes to aid Baghdad in what diplomats warn is an existential battle against Sunni Muslim militants.
Government planes pounded Tikrit and clashes broke out across the city, which fell to militants two weeks ago. Thousands of troops advanced in the most ambitious operation Iraqi forces have carried out since insurgents led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) overran swathes of five provinces in recent weeks. The ISIL is also known as Isis.
Witnesses in the city reported waves of government air strikes in central Tikrit and Saddam's palace compound.
The Iraqi forces are coordinating with recently arrived US military advisers in "studying important targets", according to Iraqi security spokesman Lieutenant General Qassem Atta.
Also yesterday, fighters backed by the Kurdish
peshmerga force were advancing on the Shiite-majority village of Basheer, south of Kirkuk, which was taken over by militants during the offensive, officials said.
The Tikrit offensive comes as Iraq took delivery of the first batch of Sukhoi warplanes from Russia, with the newly purchased Su-25 aircraft expected to be pressed into service as soon as possible, bolstering Iraq's air power. Su-25s are designed for ground attack, meaning they will be useful in trying to root out militants from a string of towns and cities they have seized.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday announced that Baghdad was buying more than a dozen Sukhoi from Russia in a deal that could be worth up to US$500 million.
While Washington has been sending military advisers to help Iraqi commanders and is flying armed drones over Baghdad, Iraqi officials have voiced frustration that multibillion-dollar deals for F-16s and Apache helicopters have not been expedited.
Washington, which has pushed for political reconciliation in the face of what US Secretary of State John Kerry has described as an "existential" threat, has also so far not acceded to Iraq's appeal for US air strikes.
The US has stopped short of calling for Maliki to go, but has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in late-2011.
Atta has said hundreds of soldiers had been killed since the insurgent offensive was launched on June 9, while the UN puts the overall death toll at over 1,000, mostly civilians.
International organisations have urged the establishment of humanitarian corridors to provide aid amid the fighting, with 1.2 million people having been displaced by unrest this year in Iraq.