BAGHDAD — Iraqi government forces backed by helicopter gunships began an offensive on Saturday to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Sunni Islamist militants while party leaders pursued talks that could end Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's divisive rule.
Politicians in Baghdad and world powers warn that unless security forces recover cities lost to the jihadi insurgents and form a government that can bring Iraq's estranged communities together, the country could rip apart along sectarian lines and menace the wider Middle East.
On the battlefield, Iraqi troops were trying to advance on Tikrit from the direction of Samarra to the south, which has become the military's line in the sand against a militant advance southward toward Baghdad.
Iraqi special forces have snipers inside Tikrit University who were dropped by air there in a bold operation on Thursday. Helicopter gunships fired at targets in Tikrit on Saturday, and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters abandoned Tikrit's governorate building, security sources said. More government troops had been air-dropped in a pocket just north of the city.
Iraqi military spokesman Qassim Atta told reporters in Baghdad that 29 “terrorists” were killed on Friday in Tikrit and militant commanders were struggling because “their morale has started to collapse.”
However, the militants were showing resilience and enjoyed the backing of some Sunni tribes, as well as former ruling Baathists from the era of late Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein — whose hometown was Tikrit — who have been alienated from Maliki's government.
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