BAGHDAD: More than 100 Sunni militants were killed in battles with the Iraqi army Thursday and late Wednesday, but the militants’ group gained potentially significant economic ground in their struggle for leverage in the region, taking control of Syria’s largest oil field.
The militants also made good on an agreement with the government of Turkey to release 32 Turkish truck drivers, who were handed over at a United Nations camp in Kurdistan.
The toughest fighting was in the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, where residents who had fled their homes for the suburbs said on Thursday that an intense bombing campaign by the Iraqi army was under way in a fight to retake the city center from militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
The group’s fighters, who took Salahuddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital, in mid-June, resorted to planting roadside bombs and booby-trapping cars and houses in their effort to slow the Iraqi Army’s advance on the provincial capital. Iraqi forces dropped bombs anywhere they suspected the militants were present, whether those locations were government buildings or homes, according to eyewitnesses.
“It is a dead city now,” said Adil al-Jubori, a tribal sheik from Tikrit, who fled to the northern suburb of Al-Alam.
“There is no life inside,” he said. “When the army hits the militants, it damages everything in the area.”
The assaults on the militants’ positions were mostly by helicopter although some Iraqi soldiers were dropped into buildings where they took up positions. By late Thursday, there were also reports of some soldiers working their way on foot through areas of the city.
A Tikrit resident, who was unable to leave the city, and a member of the Iraqi security forces who was in one of the government buildings said in telephone interviews that 95 percent of the city’s residents had fled, and that only the very poor and those who were working with the militants remained.
The two men, who did not want to be quoted by name because they feared becoming targets, said there was no diesel for cars, no gas for stoves and no food. Stores are closed, and the people who were unable to flee are living on food stocks they gathered before the crisis here began last month.
Meanwhile, a top Kurdish leader called on regional lawmakers to lay the groundwork for a referendum on independence, a vote that would likely spell the end of a unified Iraq.
The country’s 5 million Kurds have long agitated for independence in their own state.