Mitchell Prothero

IRBIL, IRAQ: Iraqi Army units backed by Shiite militias battled Islamist insurgents for control of the Iraqi city of Tikrit for a second day on Saturday in a fight that’s critical to government efforts to regain control of the country.

Both sides tend to exaggerate progress in combat, leaving the situation unclear beyond widespread reports of heavy fighting. Tens of thousands of local residents fled, claiming their neighborhoods have been bombarded by government helicopters.

A Sunni tribal leader told the Associated Press that commandos held portions of Tikrit University and an airfield once used by the U.S. Army during its 2003 to 2011 occupation of Iraq, but that the rest of the city was still under the control of fighters allied with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

With much of central, western and northern Iraq in the Islamic State’s hands, the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been pushing infantry and Shiite militias to secure a major north-south highway that leads to Baghdad and that has been largely under ISIS control since June 11.

Official military spokesmen claim that the army and its militia allies have broken the siege of Samarra to the south of Tikrit and now control not only the highway but the outer suburbs of Tikrit as well.

Iraqi Army spokesman Gen. Qassim Atta claimed that ISIS was withdrawing in the face of assault. “Reports and surveillance show that ISIS leaders have ordered a retreat,” he said.

But pro-ISIS Twitter accounts claim the offensive has stalled outside Samarra at a heavy cost to the government forces.

Samarra was one of the few cities in north central Iraq not to fall to ISIS during an onslaught that began June 10 with the surprise collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. As ISIS forces quickly swept south, the Iraqi government reinforced Samarra with Iraqi commandos and Shiite militia, in part to protect a venerated Shiite shrine whose bombing in 2006 touched off years of sectarian violence. But Tikrit fell to ISIS, which claimed it had slaughtered 1,700 Shiite soldiers it captured there.

Securing Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown where opposition to Maliki is strong, would be both a symbolic and a strategic victory. A defeat there, however, would likely trigger both more questions about Maliki’s ability to continue to lead Iraq and more questions about the competence of the Iraqi military, as much as half of which is unable to conduct operations, according to recent military briefings.

The Tikrit fighting began Thursday with a helicopter assault on the city’s university area by commandos from a unit that reports directly to Maliki. It was followed by the dispatch of Iranian-trained Shiite militiamen who seized tall buildings in the university area. Elsewhere, shelling by ISIS troops in Mosul of nearby villages controlled by forces loyal to the Kurdistan Regional Government sent refugees fleeing into the autonomous Kurdish region.